Forgotten now, but four years ago the NCAA backed down in the face of fan opposition to a plan to expand the annual men’s basketball tournament to 96 teams. Brian Lutz says its one of the few times that fans won out over corporate greed.
Picture the scene: It’s Tuesday, March 25, 2014 and the NCAA Tournament is about to begin. It kicks off around 1 p.m. as Utah, the 19-seed, takes on Maryland, the 14-seed, in the East region. It’s a battle of mediocre, disappointing teams who finished in 9th place in their respective conferences. The winner moves on to the “second round.”
Games like this go on all day Tuesday, then again on Wednesday, then again on Thursday and Friday. By the end of the week, you’re just about sick of watching basketball, and your brackets, not much fun to fill out anymore, have gone to shit. Picking that 22-over-11 seed upset is always hard, but there’s been at least one every year since 2010. This year it was Wagner over Indiana State.
March Madness? It used to be more fun. That first weekend always felt special. Many sportswriters used to call them the best four sports days of the year. Now, with 64 at-large bids and 32 first-round byes, it’s just a little off. You just read a story that said ad revenues and ticket sales are way down from the glory days of the 90s and 00s.
You fondly remember the last “true” NCAA Tournament, back in 2010, when 5th-seeded Butler, a little-known mid-major, pulled off several upsets to reach the title game before falling to Duke. This season, Butler finally returned to the tournament, grabbing one of the last at-large bids as a 24-seed. You can’t remember if they won or lost, and you really don’t care.
The scene above is a snapshot of what might have been, and it’s likely either confusing or depressing, depending on whether or not you recall the ill-fated plan to expand the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. About four years ago, the NCAA concluded that expanding the tournament to 96 teams was the “best fit” and therefore likely inevitable. Details were sketchy, but it appeared that there would be extra days, more play-in games, more first-round byes, more classes missed, and, most importantly, more money for everyone. Well, except, you know, the players.
Now, forget for a minute that this would have been a textbook example of shameless corporate greed. Forget that the new plan would have destroyed the NIT, created a sham of a regular season, and made most conference tournaments obsolete at best. Forget the hypocrisy of the NCAA balking at the idea of a football playoff because of “academic reasons” while backing a plan that would have added a few more days, or weeks, or whatever, of missed class time to already-bloated March schedules. Forget the ridiculous thought of watching an NCAA Tournament featuring 13 ACC teams, or the entire Big Ten except for Northwestern.
Forget all that and just remember one thing: most fans hated the idea. The tourney had been essentially unchanged since it expanded to 64 teams in 1985—modified only by the rather meaningless play-in game, creating the 65th team—and since that time, it had skyrocketed in popularity. Somehow, fans understood the tournament’s unique appeal better than the suits that actually ran it.
But the concerns of the common fan, or so we thought, mattered little, especially when revenue streams and television contracts were involved. In 2010, the NCAA was aiming to restructure their $6 billion-with-a-B contract with CBS. More games = more money, and fans didn’t factor into that equation. Our wallets were assumed to be open, forever and always.
Just about every March, a huge underdog pulls off a stunning upset in the tournament, and we all rejoice. It’s not that we don’t like Georgetown or Ohio State or Duke—well, nobody likes Duke—but rather it’s refreshing and reassuring to see superior talent knocked off in such ruthless fashion. It gives hope to those with the chips stacked against them, a group to which the common fan belongs.
Fan problems are cushier even than first-world problems, but they are irritating nonetheless. We pay parking fees that cost as much as tickets did to the previous generation. We fund stadiums all over the country, some that are no longer standing and some that never should have been built. We buy player jerseys and $11 beers. Mostly, we’re suckers. But following sports is still supposed to be a fun and pleasant experience, an idea that shapes our strong collective opinions.
Fan sentiment rarely impedes a business decision, and among the professional ranks, it’s at least understandable. Fans hate the idea of ads on NBA jerseys, but it’s still inevitable, according to new commissioner Adam Silver. It’s hard to pass up an untapped $100 million revenue stream.
But the NCAA—a non-profit organization, by the way—continues to unearth gobs of cash, none of which seems to benefit the players or the fans. Instead, it trickles down to those at the top. Kirby Smart makes $1.35 million per year to be the football coach at Alabama. The assistant coach. Gene Chizik and his staff, fired from Auburn in 2012, made $2.7 million. In 2013. Meanwhile, did you know the forthcoming SEC Network is expected to bring in $28.5 million of additional revenue per school?
That the NCAA can simultaneously profit from and ignore the common fan is a bit exasperating. If fans had their say, many lower-tier football Bowl Games would be eliminated, the constant and costly conference realignments would end, players would get paid, coaches would be held to contracts, and the basketball tournament would remain mostly as is. At least they got one right.
Did you enjoy the 2014 NCAA Tournament? It’s not even over yet, and it’s produced a record-tying seven overtime games, plenty of memorable dramatic moments, a handful of classic thrillers, and the now biennial first-round upset of Duke. It’s the rare sporting event that is respected and beloved, followed by a broad spectrum of fans. It’s not truly spring until you get that slow-motion shot of the bench at (fill in dark-horse Cinderella team here) going crazy during a monumental upset.
It’s not totally clear that a 96-team tournament would have been so bad; on a list of sins committed by the NCAA, it would rank pretty low. The 68-team format is now in place until at least 2021, and the eventually reworked contract with CBS was just as lucrative as ever, at $11 billion-with-a-B.
We probably won’t ever know what role, if any, fan reaction had in the decision to keep the tournament close enough to its classic design that we all embrace. But it’s nice to win one once in awhile. Kind of like that fuzzy feeling we all get watching Mercer beat Duke.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP