Only drawback to bigger tourney is smaller print
Instead of the usual hyperventilating, what we got this
Selection Sunday were halfhearted groans. Even the guys with
legitimate gripes held their tongues. Get used to it.
After learning their teams weren’t among the 65 invitees, the
harshest word coaches Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech and Bruce
Weber of Illinois could muster was “disappointing.” Mostly, they
blamed themselves. Either could have fumed about how much more
demanding it is to win in a big-time conference than in a
But both knew better.
This is already one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in
years, maybe ever. Get used to that, too. Instead of arguing over
who got left out, the conversation is about to shift to how many
should get in. The tournament is going to expand whether you like
it or not – if not next year then very likely soon after the NCAA’s
TV deal with CBS ends in 2013.
“A lot is at stake here,” NCAA senior vice president Greg
It’s worth noting Shaheen said that while attending a
CBS-sponsored event in New York last week. His organization has
until July 31 to decide whether to opt out of the current 11-year,
$6 billion deal, which means he and the CBS execs who were his
hosts could be facing each other across a bargaining table just a
few months from now. So far, though, both parties like the
“Our history is that CBS keeps events it wants to keep on the
network. We’ve always done a good job of renewing rights,” network
president Sean McManus said at the same event. “I think that
should follow then for the NCAA tournament.”
If only it were that simple. Because its contract with CBS is
backloaded, the NCAA will receive about $700 million a year, on
average, for the final three years.
The only way the NCAA opts out of the deal is if another
network, say ESPN, offers to match the money and adds more years.
And the only way that deal gets made is if the NCAA offers even
more product. And the chances that will happen, and when?
Depends on who you ask.
McManus, even while describing himself as just “an interested
spectator’ in the expansion debate, said, “One thing I’ve learned
about sports fans is that they’re very adaptable. The wild card
idea in baseball – a lot of hard-core baseball fans were opposed. I
think it now generates a lot more interest. Generally speaking,
when expansion has happened, it has increased interest in the
overall sport itself.”
Most of the coaches and former coaches who’ve chosen sides like
the idea. Bob Knight and John Wooden talked about opening up the
tournament to every Division I member years ago. Syracuse’s Jim
Boeheim, probably the most vocal advocate in the game today,
practically declared it a litmus test, suggesting any coach who
opposed expansion might be in the wrong business.
Boeheim proposed adding between four and six teams at a meeting
of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2006. Other
models range from a 68-team field on up to 80 or 96. Since the NCAA
gets most of its operating revenue from the tournament, look for
the final version will come in on the high end.
“Sixty-five teams has proven to be a winner in every respect.
With that being said, this is not about today,” said Dan Guerrero,
chairman of the basketball committee and another of CBS’ invited
guests. “It’s really about the future.”
Expansion has been on the agenda for several years now, but the
talk has only turned serious this season, in large part because of
the opt-out clause in the current deal. The NCAA has said even a
96-team tournament, assuming first-round byes for the top 32 teams,
could still be squeezed into the current three-week time frame.
There’s plenty of opposition, and not just from purists.
“Some are very, very open-minded about the possibility,”
Guerrero said about his discussions with athletic directors. “Some
don’t want to see it.”
The tournament included 32 teams in 1978. The last meaningful
expansion, to 64 teams, occurred in 1985. The number of schools
playing Division I men’s basketball that year was 284. There are
Some of the same objections were raised each time the tournament
got bigger: expanding the field cheapens the accomplishment and
dilutes the impact of the regular season. Yet the sport has never
been more popular. The underlying appeal of the basketball
tournament, unlike the jerry-rigged football version run by the
Bowl Championship Series, is that it never fails to deliver a
More teams will only enhance it – no matter how small the print
on your bracket page gets.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org