NCAA basketball tournament isn’t broken, so why fix it?
The scrum of big-time sports may be adding to the pile soon. March Madness may become March Insanity.
The NCAA is pondering adding to its 65-team men’s basketball tournament, making it a 96-team field. It is locked into the current format only through this year’s championship game. After that, it can re-negotiate its $6-billion contract with CBS.
The 96-team field is a dumb idea, based on greed.
FOR THE RECORD:
College basketball: A column on Saturday in Sports about a proposal to enlarge the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to 96 from 65 teams said the plan called for an increase of 15 games. The change would require 31 additional games. —
So expect it to happen.
If you give somebody more product, they have to pay more. It’s a simple theory, and since big-time college sports is pretty much a product these days, 31 more packages filled with potential story lines should make CBS raise the ante and/or take in cable partners. One of the likely cable partners would be ESPN, the sugar daddy of American sports these days.
Is there no God? Expanding the tournament by 15 more games means that a network has paid for just that many more opportunities to subject viewers to three people sitting at a table analyzing what is going to happen before it happens, followed by three people sitting at a table analyzing what happened after it happened. How much more can we wallow in televised cliches and belabor the obvious?
The truth is there are already 97 teams that play in NCAA-owned postseason tournaments. It’s just that 32 of them currently take part in the NIT (National Invitation Tournament), which should be called the TOL -- Tournament of Leftovers. It’s only good for the coaches, who can tell their administration and alums that they got their team “into the postseason.”
NCAA officials say that adding those teams to the big tournament would elevate their profile, and they’re probably right. Can you imagine UCLA’s Ben Howland talking to a group of Bruins boosters in the off-season and starting his speech with, “Well, last season was a success because we got to the NIT”? At least he wouldn’t have to cite a junior tournament.
Coaches such as Howland and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke would have an understanding for the 96-team proposal, if it truly did the one thing Coach K advocated recently in his support of the expansion. That being put more emphasis on the regular-season conference race.
This year’s Pacific 10 Conference is a prime example. The teams are so closely matched -- another way to say none of them are very good -- that whoever wins the conference title may not go to the NCAA tournament.
The Pac-10’s automatic berth goes to the winner of its postseason tournament. The regular-season conference champion wins out over 18 games. The conference tournament champion wins out over four at the most, usually three.
Taking care of the regular-season champion is a good thing, but only in the current 65-team NCAA format. That means there would be no need for conference tournaments, which would mean doing away with another of college basketball’s cash cows.
Which means that’s not going to happen.
The NCAA is a business, but not a business of widget makers. It is supposed to be guided by its higher calling: the advancement of the education of our college students through athletics. It provides the raw material for the pros, but that doesn’t mean it has to do business like them.
If it goes ahead with this plan to reach deeper into television’s pockets, in return for the rights to televise another round of games matching the likes of 15-13 Washington State against 14-16 Northwestern, it should at least consider being right up front in its approach. Hire Tom Cruise, put him in his “Jerry Maguire” wardrobe and have him stand up in front of CBS executives, pound on the table and yell,"Show me the money!”
At least that would be honest.
If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And the NCAA basketball tournament is closer to being perfect than broken.
Instead of taking the Jerry Maguire image into contract talks with CBS, the NCAA would be best served by sitting down, pointing out the massive success and branding value this event brings to the network, and negotiating a reasonable increase.
When all the papers are signed, leave the meeting, meet the media and present an outline of how this additional money will be used. We should assume that it will further educational aspects of each member school.
That’s the NCAA’s reason to exist. Orchestrating disproportionately bigger and richer TV shows is not.