No matter how glorious this past NCAA tournament was -- the thrilling opening day, Butler's inspiring run to a hometown Final Four, and a title game that was good to the last shot -- it was difficult to leave Indianapolis without the feeling that something horrible was on the horizon.
(By that, I don't mean back-to-back titles for Duke.)
Mega-expansion was looming because, on the day most of us arrived in Indy, March 31, Big Ten commissioner
Yet on a Thursday afternoon exactly three weeks later, the NCAA held a teleconference to announce a new, 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting -- one that's based
More importantly, it represents a major victory for college basketball. The NCAA did the right thing. While I'd prefer a pure, 64-team format without play-in games, 68 teams is immensely more palatable than 96. The sanctity of the NCAA tournament has been preserved for the time being, and that's something to celebrate, even if
So this is something we may be revisiting before the deal ends in 2024. But, as Shaheen said, expansion is now something that's "exclusively at the NCAA's discretion" -- meaning that competition issues, not monetary issues, will determine the state of the NCAA tournament for the next 14 years. It has a better chance of staying at 68 now that TV money is secure. The NCAA will be getting approximately $771 million per year no matter what.
And fans will be getting a better tournament experience: Every single game will be available live on a combination of CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV (a heretofore little-known Turner-family network that had, as the main story on its Web site Thursday, a police-sting operation with the headline "No Urination Without Representation"). No more need to buy DirecTV packages or go online to view simultaneous games -- something that had become absurd in an era where cable TV plans include hundreds of channels. Betting pools, the driving force behind the mainstream popularity of tournament (even though the NCAA will never acknowledge that), won't have to be overhauled; they can stay close to their current format, either ignoring the play-in games or adding four lines, and still fit the bracket on one sheet of paper.
The losses are far less significant than the gains. BCS-conference coaches who championed tournament expansion as a way to maintain job security -- and a way to avoid playing decent nonconference schedules -- will weep. When the NCAA decides on the new 68-team format this summer, we'll find out which teams will take the biggest hit: Will the weakest automatic qualifiers -- the current Nos. 15 and 16 seeds -- be pushed into play-in games, or will the last few at-larges (in an idea that colleague Andy Glockner
My biggest concern in a 16/17 play-in game model wouldn't be for the teams in
That's the next thing we need to campaign for, and who knows, maybe the NCAA will listen. Public reaction had to have played at least some role in the NCAA settling on 68 rather than 96. The public's response to the 96 idea was overwhelmingly negative, and I wonder if Isch, Shaheen, CBS and Turner didn't want to be regarded as the villains who ruined college sports' crown jewel. Fans' love for the current format -- or something close to the current format -- also enhances its value, something that the networks no doubt also considered in the process of committing to fork over $10.8 billion.
I also don't doubt that there were more powerful figures who influenced this deal. At the Final Four, a source with knowledge of the expansion process told me that Shaheen believed the timing of Delany's "probable" remark was calculated, as a possible effort to drum up anti-expansion chatter in the media. Conference commissioners wanted a say in the process, because a 96-team NCAA tournament would have devalued their regular-season and conference-tournament TV products. Some of that sentiment was clear at the BCS meetings in Phoenix on Thursday, where Big East commissioner
The brand, or even the spirit, of the NCAA tournament, is about a few things: Exclusivity, in that it takes a strong season -- or a conference-tourney championship -- to earn your way into the field; excitement, especially the rush of the opening Thursday and Friday; and fairy tales, in that we yearn, every year, for a George Mason-like story. The NCAA preserved that brand on Thursday. Sixty-eight maintains the prestige of a bid to the dance, it protects the magic of the opening rounds, and it means the next George Mason won't need to play five games to reach the Final Four.
Eventually, we'll get back to worrying about how Isch left the expansion door open by saying two words: "for now." But for now, at least, we can rejoice. The NCAA tournament has been saved.