By Stewart Mandel
March 02, 2010

The calendar turned to March this week, which means one of our nation's most celebrated sporting events is just around the corner. Two Sundays from now, CBS studio host Greg Gumbel will read off the names of 65 college basketball teams. Millions of fans around the country will race to fill out their brackets. Many will find excuses to skip work or take long lunch breaks the following Thursday and Friday, as another NCAA tournament tips off.

But behind the scenes, executives in charge of this multibillion-dollar event are holding discussions that could drastically alter the future of March Madness. On the eve of potential network television renegotiations, committees and panels representing the NCAA and its members must soon decide whether to implement the first major expansion of the tourney's field in 25 years.

"There is any variety of future possibilities being considered," said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior VP of basketball and business strategies. "The options, trust me, are endless."

Last month, the popular blogger SportsByBrooks reported that unnamed ESPN sources claimed the NCAA's move to a 96-team men's basketball tournament was a "done deal." Nothing involving the NCAA happens that quickly, but it's clear that expansion -- long dismissed as a far-fetched possibility -- is a distinct possibility. The SportsBusiness Journal obtained a copy of a request-for-proposal the NCAA issued late last year to numerous media entities gauging interest in a possible 68- or 96-team field.

Public reaction to the possibility has been ... well, apoplectic. In a USA Today poll asking readers whether the NCAA should expand, 80 percent voted "no." Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton called it "the worst idea in the history of ideas." A headline on the popular Michigan fan site read: "The 96 Team NCAA Tournament: A Plot Against America."

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Nothing has happened yet. Based on conversations with numerous officials across the sport, it's clear that discussions about the topic have been ongoing for years, and several steps remain before any decision will be reached. And yes, there's the possibility that nothing will happen.

But Shaheen, the tournament's unofficial czar, has spent much of his time recently jetting around the country to brief university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors on the latest developments. At one point, he visited 13 cities in five days. The timing is such that the NCAA will have to make some definitive decision about the tournament's future within the next five months -- and there are numerous reasons some form of expansion seems increasingly likely.

The NCAA is in the eighth year of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS for the rights to March Madness. The deal accounts for more than 90 percent of the organization's annual revenue, which is used in large part to stage its other 87 championship events.

The CBS deal includes an extremely rare clause that allows the NCAA to opt out of the final three years (2011-'13) -- with no obligation to CBS -- if it does so by July 31. The organization can openly solicit offers from other entities, which is exactly what it's doing in gauging networks' interest in a potentially expanded format.

"You've got a situation where the people who are responsible for the television future of the tournament have an obligation to explore every different option out there to determine what's in the best interest of the NCAA," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive. "It would be irresponsible, given the magnitude of this issue, not to explore every conceivable option."

Knowing the timing of the opt-out window, Myles Brand, the NCAA's president of seven years who died from pancreatic cancer last September, began instituting an exploration process as far back as 2004. He put the task largely in the hands of a small circle of advisors, most notably Shaheen, who oversees the NCAA's Corporate and Broadcast Alliances group; Jim Isch, formerly the NCAA's chief financial officer, now its interim president; and the Division I basketball committee (known more commonly as the selection committee), a panel of 10 commissioners and athletic directors that administers the tournament and to which Shaheen is a liaison.

"Any contract itself is the responsibility of the president. So that's the starting point," Shaheen said. "And then, as it relates to field or tournament structure, that starts with the basketball committee. Those 10 people are spending time throughout the year looking at the game of college basketball and how it plays out. It is the starting point to which any proposal regarding the tournament would originate."

Slive, who recently completed a five-year term on the basketball committee (which meets five times per year), said the group has discussed expansion on and off for years, but that the discussion turned more serious within the past year.

"The question of the size of the tournament is an evergreen issue that comes up on a regular basis," he said. "But in anticipation of the [TV] window coming up, the basketball committee spent a substantial portion of the past year discussing the various options in an effort to get ready for the discussions."

While Shaheen noted that the interim president is authorized to approve any new contract, the Division I board of directors -- an oversight panel comprised of 18 university presidents and chancellors -- will "evaluate and approve any format change."

"The Division I board will be making a recommendation at some point whether there will be an expansion in the tournament," said Oregon State president Ed Ray, who serves on the Board of Directors and chairs the committee charged with hiring Brand's successor. "The reason that it's getting as much attention as it is now is that this is the opt-out year with CBS, and it's natural if you're talking about the tournament for a number of years to come, to discuss whether there should be expansion.

"These two conversations are converging, but nothing is going to happen in the dead of night."

To walk away from the existing CBS contract would require quite the sweetheart deal, since more than a third of its total value ($2.13 billion) is due over the next three years. The NCAA seems to be seeking both added revenue streams and long-term stability (according to SportsBusiness Journal, the NCAA is seeking a 14-year deal). One reason it may choose to exercise its opt-out rather than wait another three years to renegotiate is that it currently has the market to itself. ESPN's Monday Night Football contract and FOX and TBS' Major League Baseball deals also expire in 2013, and networks will soon begin bidding on rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics.

The NCAA is also dealing with the reality that its current 65-team tournament is unlikely to fetch as high a price tag as its current deal, struck in 1999 when both the economy and network television were in far better shape. While still hugely popular, the tournament has seen its viewership decrease over the years. In '99, the Connecticut-Duke title game earned a 17.2 rating, while the tournament garnered a 6.3 average rating for all 63 games. A decade later, last year's North Carolina-Michigan State finale recorded a 10.8 rating (the lowest number since Nielsen started tracking it), the overall tournament a 5.7.

One way to maintain or increase existing rights fees is to move some or all of the games to a cable network, which isn't dependent on advertising dollars like a traditional network. Sources confirmed to that CBS is partnering with Turner Sports (a division of Time Warner, which owns Sports Illustrated) for its proposal, and that ESPN, FOX, Comcast (which is currently in the process of merging with NBC and owns the cable sports channel Versus) and others are also in talks with the NCAA.

"Cable is the 800-pound gorilla," said TV sports consultant Neal Pilson, who was president of CBS Sports when it first acquired the tourney in 1982. "You look at ESPN, at $4 per subscriber, per month, times 100 million [subscribers]. That's a pretty big number. Turner is getting close to $1 per [subscriber]. Networks aren't generating any comparable dollars beyond their advertising."

It stands to reason, then, that the addition of a cable outlet would allow the NCAA to add more games, and in turn, presumably garner more revenue. A 96-team field would add 31 games, bringing the total to 95. It's easy to envision ESPN spreading those games across its various channels, or CBS moving the surplus games it currently licenses to DirecTV (for its "Mega March Madness" package) to TNT and/or TBS.

Pilson, however, isn't convinced that an expanded field would be good business for broadcasters.

"In the current economic environment, I don't think the broadcast industry needs more inventory in the marketplace," he said. "You lose pricing control [with advertisers] when you have a tremendous amount of inventory. Ninety-six [teams] would obviously give you many more games. I just don't think it's desirable from a television point of view or an economic point of view."

That being said, the NCAA tournament remains one of television's most coveted sports properties due to the participation of teams from every pocket of the country, and, "CBS will do whatever it can to retain it," said Pilson, even if it means begrudgingly accepting an expanded tourney field.

Meanwhile, another, less notable TV contract may play a part in the NCAA's decision: That of the NIT.

In 2005, as part of a $56.5 million settlement of an antitrust lawsuit, the NCAA took over ownership of the sport's so-called "consolation tournament." Suffice to say, the 32-team event does not bring in nearly as much as the NCAA must pay out. In a convenient coincidence, the NIT's current deal with ESPN expires after this season, and the NCAA has been simultaneously exploring what to do with that tournament going forward.

As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested last fall, one possibility is simply to merge the two events. Why continue a money-draining tournament when you can move those same 32 teams to a more glamorous and lucrative event?

"We have a decision going forward as to how to proceed with the NIT -- should it continue in the same venue, should it move to a different venue?" said Ray, the Oregon State president. "Ultimately, the NCAA is responsible for 97 tournament teams. What is the best way for the NCAA to handle those teams going forward? This is something we will debate."

The biggest expansion proponents by far are the coaches, most of whom are evaluated on whether or not they regularly lead their team to the tournament. The more opportunity their teams have to participate, the better.

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Many point to the inequity between their sport and football, where the number of bowl berths has increased dramatically over the past 15 years (from 38 in 1994 to 68 last season). More than 56 percent of FBS football teams now reach the postseason, while fewer than 19 percent of the 347 Division I basketball teams garner NCAA bids.

"I'm not only for expansion, I think they ought to double the size of the field to 130 teams," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That still would only be a little more than a third of all Division I basketball teams in the field."

"You've got college basketball players who are responsible for 90 percent of the NCAA budget," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Why shouldn't they have the same opportunities at the same percentage rate that other NCAA teams have in going to postseason play? Why not give them that experience?"

Ryan went so far as to say "it will be a crime" if expansion doesn't occur.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been one of the rare dissenters among his colleagues, saying that qualifying for the tourney should be "really hard to do."

Shaheen points out that of all the championships the NCAA administers, roughly "seven out of eight" -- 75 of 88, to be exact -- have expanded their fields over the past 10 years.

"We believe that the field size for the championship is something that requires regular examination," he said. "The variety of facts that's behind the growth of our membership, and the supply and demand of postseason opportunities, are all factors we look at, but the committee focuses on the overall [tournament] experience. That will ultimately steer their decision-making."

To that end, most fans and media, as well as some of the participants, believe the viewing experience will be dampened should the field expand. The symmetry of a 64-game bracket -- where everyone from Kansas to Coppin State plays on that first Thursday or Friday -- would be lost if a large number of teams (32 in a 96-team field) draw first-round byes. Extra games would either necessitate an extra weekend or be squeezed into weeknights in the existing calendar.

And while the idea of additional Cinderella teams might initially sound intriguing, critics believe the berths will go primarily to teams from the bottom half of the major conferences. Last year's lowest-ranked at-large team, Arizona, finished the regular season 19-13, with a No. 62 RPI rating. (In a nod to expansion proponents, the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16.) The lowest-rated of the 32 teams that did not receive an at-large berth, No. 84 Cincinnati, finished 17-14, 8-10 in the Big East.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, an outspoken expansion proponent for several years, contends that quality teams are being left out because "We have automatic qualifiers, so there's teams in there that aren't the best teams in the country." But isn't that what makes the event so special? This March, some team like Stony Brook will get the chance to face a team like Syracuse in the first round. In an expanded field, the Orange would get a bye while Stony Brook played a team that would currently be seeded ninth or 10th.

Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, a basketball committee member who's had a direct hand in the selection process, says the notion of a "watered down" field isn't necessarily relevant.

"The right question is, would an expanded tournament allow us to stage a competitive and compelling tournament that retains that feel of being such a special event?" he said. "Would the matchups be competitive? Would they provide for a terrific level of competition throughout? That matters to me more than, 'Are we going to water down the field?' "

While the idea of a 96-team bracket seems unfathomable to most fans as of today, expansion proponents counter that the critics would acclimate themselves to the new format quickly enough.

"To me, it's foolish for those people who are saying it's perfect the way it is," Ryan said. "... The only people who would be disappointed would be all those people that have already printed out their 64-game bracket sheets. I think those can be changed."

Finally, administrators must consider what effect an expanded tournament might have on the sport's regular season, which seems to become more and more devalued every year. Unlike football, which captures as strong a following from beginning to end, many fans don't bother paying close attention to regular-season college basketball until the tourney draws near.

For example, CBS, even with its vested interest in the sport, devoted just one regionalized broadcast window both Saturday, Feb. 20 and Sunday, Feb. 21 -- just three weeks before Selection Sunday. Should it lose the tournament, the network will almost certainly drop the sport entirely.

"I don't know about [expansion] threatening the popularity of the tournament as much as having more dilution of the regular season," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Sporting News. "I do think the tournament is elegant in the way that it's structured, but I'm more concerned about, What does this mean for the sport of basketball from November through March?"

Bobinski said any discussion of a diminished regular season is purely "conjecture."

"I understand why people would make that argument, but I don't know how you could prove that one way or the other," he said. "You can look at the other side of that -- instead of lessening the importance of the regular season, maybe [expansion] would increase the importance? It makes it a very challenging topic."

Delany has been outspoken in his frustration that ground-level administrators like himself haven't been afforded a greater role in the NCAA's current discussions. "I certainly hadn't anticipated it was a likely occurrence," he said.

Shaheen insists that any decisions about the tournament's future will be addressed amongst a broad group of decision-makers. "Our entire membership -- our commissioners, our athletic directors -- will all be involved if there's anything to have a discussion about," he said. "The opt-out [exploration] is just a normal course of business matter."

Ultimately, however, this colossally important discussion will wind up in the hands of a small group of people -- Shaheen's team; the board of directors; and, most notably, Isch, the NCAA's interim president who, because of the timing of the July 31 opt-out deadline, may wind up having to authorize the organization's most important decision in a decade.

"I don't know if we can have a new president in place by the end of July -- we're aiming for fall -- so it may be that it falls to Jim on his watch to make some very hard decisions," Ray said. "[Jim] is not going to hide in a closet somewhere and make a decision, he's going to talk to a lot of people he respects."

While the NCAA's request-for-proposal to the networks laid out hypothetical 68- and 96-team models, a source told that bidders are free to pitch other models, such as a compromise 80-team field (which would give first-round byes to the top 16 teams). Another source suggested that expansion could be instituted in phases, since it would be extremely difficult to rearrange schedules and secure additional sites with less than a year's notice.

Meanwhile, multiple sources indicated CBS is hopeful it can preempt other bidders by announcing a contract extension around the time of the Final Four.

"If we receive an offer that [Isch] believes to be in the Association's best long-term interests with the existing field size, he could certainly make the same decision," Shaheen said.

In the meantime, the Board of Directors is fully expecting to hold an expansion discussion at its next scheduled meeting on April 29 in Indianapolis.

"I'm approaching it with an open mind because I do not have a full grasp of the consequences and unintended consequences that come with doing something as enormous as an expansion of the field," Ray said. "I really think we are going to have a very good discussion."

This much is certain. Nearly all the various parties with a vested interested in the tourney seem far more open to expansion possibilities than the general public.

Will March Madness still resonate in the nation's cubicles and sports bars if the bracket becomes more bloated? The NCAA has several billion dollars riding on that question -- and the clock is ticking to come up with an answer.

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