The NCAA appears to have made up its mind. The current 65-team field of the men’s basketball tournament will expand to 96 teams. It expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and added the extra play-in game in 2001.
According to the Associated Press, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen “said the NCAA looked at keeping the current 65-team field and expanding to 68 or 80 teams, but decided the bigger bracket was best fit logistically and financially.”
The key word is “financially”.
Adding 32 teams is an additional 16 games. That’s more ticket revenue, parking, concessions, etc. But the big money comes from TV. The NCAA signed an 11-year contract with CBS in 1999, and they have a mutual opt-out option until July 31. The NCAA is talking with other networks, such as a combination of ESPN and ABC, about expansion. With more teams and more games, the TV contract would have to grow.
There are two big problems with this plan.
First, good-bye NIT. The National Invitation Tournament, won by Dayton last night, would fade away. Once the official men’s basketball championship tourney, the NIT invites 32 teams, probably the same 32 that would make a future NCAA field. One of the arguments made by the NCAA is that by taking those 32 teams and putting them into the NCAA field, travel is reduced because the sites of the first- and second-round games would now host three rounds. Tell that to the college sites and Madison Square Garden, which host the NIT games.
Second, the NCAA is being hypocritical when you compare this plan to the college football system. For years now there has been a cry for a Division I playoff system, but the NCAA doesn’t want to abandon its sponsor-rich bowl system. They say a playoff system would keep students out of the classroom too much. They say the lesser bowl games would lose significance. Au contraire.
A college football playoff would be played in December and early January, when most colleges are on break. Adding more college basketball games during March is primetime for spring semester. Lesser bowl games are played now while we all wait for one game, the BCS championship game that is usually a controversial matchup. With a 16-team playoff, for example, every weekend matters, and TV can use the lesser bowls as warmups to the playoff games every weekend. Heck, play some of these games on weeknights to avoid clashing with the NFL.
I understand the desire to expand the basketball tournament. There is potential of ruining a good thing, of course. If it does expand, please consider a couple of ideas:
1) Play the first two rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week. Start earlier. Keep the current Thursday through Sunday schedule that we have now for rounds one through four. Make the lower 64 play first-round games on Tuesday and Wednesday, then the normal craziness of Thursday and Friday kicks in as usual.
2) Give automatic bids to regular season league champions. This gives meaning to the regular season, which can be a grind, in addition to the exciting sprint of the postseason league tournaments.
Finally, the NCAA should admit their hypocrisy when they suggest such plans. Please be honest with us. You owe us that much.