A few years ago, AS the Big East mustered for its annual tournament in Madison Square Garden, one of SI's editors had an intriguing thought. At least four of the league's nine teams were already assured postseason bids, but the NCAA prospects of several others were in doubt. What if, this editor wondered, one of those fence sitters ran up against one of the NCAA shoo-ins during the Big East tournament? Like most conferences, the Big East shares revenue from the NCAAs among its members, and extra qualifiers only sweeten everyone's cut. What was to prevent a school already certain of a high seed in the NCAA tournament from lying down in front of a team that needed a win to make the field?
Though Thoughtful Editor was loath to suggest that any of the Big East's institutions would ever put out less than 100%—especially when all that's at stake is a measly quarter million or so—it did seem to him that the system had a built-in incentive for some teams to lose for the greater good of the conference.
Thus it happened that the editor phoned the Big Guy himself, Dave Gavitt—Big East commissioner, the erstwhile head of the NCAA basketball committee—and outlined this nefarious possibility. A few beats passed as Gavitt absorbed the editor's theory. Finally, he spoke. "That's Star Wars stuff," he said, then terminated the conversation.
Star Wars, alas, isn't a bad analogy for what college basketball has become. It would take a panel of rocket scientists to sort out all the marketing, licensing, sponsorship and broadcasting income that a major conference banks in a year. And only Star Wars involves more money than the NCAA tournament, the TV rights to which CBS paid $57.2 million last spring, and which had a gross of more than $70 million.
November 20, 1989
Did someone say gross? With six of its eight schools in the 1989 draw, the ACC took home nearly $5 million of the roughly $37 million disbursed to the 31 conferences and two independents that participated in the tournament. According to the ACC's complicated revenue-sharing formula, Duke, which made it to the Final Four, earned more than $1 million, while the league's two doormats, Wake Forest and Maryland, earned $140,000 each. At the other end of the scale, the Trans America Athletic Conference (TAAC), for example, received a mere $274,845 for Arkansas-Little Rock's first-round loss. After the Trojans took their share of the pie, the other nine TAAC schools banked $15,269 apiece.
Excuse me for asking, but isn't the TAAC's Georgia Southern slightly more in need of the NCAA's money than, say, Georgia Tech, which already rakes in large amounts from gate receipts, the ACC tournament, innumerable TV dates and the like?
Seven of the nine members of the NCAA basketball committee come from among the top dozen conferences. So while the tournament generates staggering sums for the 100 or so richest schools and chump change for the rest, don't look to the committee to change that soon.
It's the coaches who are clamoring for reform. Buttonhole any Division I coach, and he'll tell you: 1) how athletic directors are penciling into their budgets a line-item for a tournament share; 2) how he, the coach, and his colleagues live with withering pressure to make the field; and 3) how the pursuit of this cash is at the root of such win-at-all-costs abuses as buying players.
Michigan State's Jud Heathcote, the outgoing president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, has proposed a plan that would share the wealth more equitably, yet retain a modest monetary incentive to win. Heathcote would have taken last spring's $37 million and earmarked about $11 million for drug education, clinics, officiating and expenses for small-college tournaments. Another $6 million would have been set aside as a performance pool for the Division I tournament teams, to be paid out in $100,000 increments for each victory. The remaining $20 million would have been split evenly among the 293 Division I schools. That's $70,000 for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and $70,000 for the Georgia Southern Eagles, even if neither team makes the tournament.
When I saw Thoughtful Editor the other day, I outlined for him the Heathcote plan. He doesn't think it goes far enough. He would like to see the NCAA channel more money into its enforcement department, where the cops on the beat are overworked and underpaid. As long as the NCAA doles out more and more money each year, but the stable of full-time investigators remains frozen at 15, the NCAA is sending its membership a dangerous message: Cheat to collect.
For the most part, however, the editor liked Heathcote's proposal. He nodded—thoughtfully, of course—and retired to his desk.
He's awaiting Dave Gavitt's call.