The latest not-so-subtle hint that the expansion is coming to a TV near you appeared last week at ACC Basketball Media Day when Commissioner Jim Phillips slipped it into his “All is well with the ACC” introductory remarks.
“The time is now,” said Phillips, who is part of what’s called the NCAA’s “transformation committee.” In English, that means he’s one of the guys tasked with finding new ways to make more money.
“The time has come to look at the overall structure of the NCAA, and one of their responsibilities has been championships,” Phillips said. “So I’m in favor of looking at it and I would really like us to expand it.”
At least Phillips was upfront about what he wanted — unlike SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, who recently said the tournament needed “a new look.”
What does this mean exactly, Commissioner? Oh, wait; we know what that means.
Phillips stressed the importance of protecting “the AQs” – the automatic qualifiers – but made clear his plan is to get more general teams into the field. As in, more teams from the power conferences. Anyone who thinks expansion will mean more “opportunity” – another Phillips word – for teams in traditional single-bid conferences should consider investing in New Coke’s impending return.
(One note: If the NCAA wants to emphasize expansion, it should make the National Invitation Tournament strictly for non-major conferences. Invite the schools that think playing in the NIT is cool, not the 13th place team from the ACC, Big Ten or SEC. The NIT has already had expelled from New York. Maybe this could save him.)
A little history is important here. The last time the NCAA seriously considered expansion was in 2010, when his megabucks contract with CBS was up for renegotiation. Commissioners and athletic directors began tossing around the idea of expanding the number to 96 teams, or even 128. More teams, more television revenue.
I had an argument about this one night with Gary Williams, whose Maryland team had missed the tournament three times after an 11-year run in which it had qualified every season and won a title nationally along the way. Like most coaches, Williams was very supportive of expansion.
“What you anti-expansionists don’t understand,” he said, pointing at me, “is that playing in a tournament is something players will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s a memory they will keep with them forever. »
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s because it’s hard to participate in the tournament. Even for a program as good as yours, you know that you have to work hard every year to be sure of being admitted. You develop, it becomes almost automatic and achieving it is no longer a big deal. Now this is a big deal.
It’s still a big deal, but it will lose a lot of its magic if half the “Power Six” schools, including those in the Big East, make the tournament.
The response to the NCAA’s trial balloons, including at longtime President Mark Emmert’s Final Four press conference, was negative enough that the tournament was not expanded from 65 teams to 68 – helped greatly by persuading TBS to join CBS in financing a multi-billion dollar deal that CBS couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for on its own.
The benefit of adding three teams was that the dreaded “play-in” game – created in 2001 to avoid losing an at-large bid when the Mountain West became an automatic qualifier – was replaced by the “First Four” , which sent eight teams to Dayton, Ohio, instead of two. More importantly, the NCAA got the very lucrative new television contract it had been dreaming of.
Last spring, she signed a 14-year contract with CBS and TBS worth $10.8 billion. Six years later, the contract was extended until 2032 worth $8.8 billion over the additional eight years. Talk about a goose that lays golden eggs. The tournament will extend well into 2032 and new Monopoly numbers will be included in a new television deal.
For the record, I’m not an “anti-expansionist” in all areas – just in basketball. I believe expansion from four teams to 12 for the College Football Playoff This is a good thing, if only because it ensures that power non-conference schools will get at least one spot every year. In the first eight years of the four-team playoff, non-power schools received an invitation.
Beyond that, there are simple numbers. There are 131 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. Four spots in the championship tournament means thirty-thirds of eligible schools can play. Even moving to 12 teams means less than 10 percent of FBS schools will qualify.
In basketball, there are 358 Division I men’s teams and 356 women’s teams. That means 19 percent of teams qualify for the tournament, more than double the percentage in football even after playoff expansion.
The men’s tournament grew from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 in 1985. That turned out to be the magic number: no byes, two days of first-round upsets that captivated the country, real Cinderellas who had their moment – or in Butler’s case, moments – in the spotlight.
This number was stuck until the stupid play-in money grab in 2001. The creation of the First Four in 2011 was an improvement and kept the idea of Cinderella alive – although the notion of UCLA plays the role of Cinderella in 2021 going from the First Four to the Final Four was a bit far-fetched.
The most important point is this: at a time when expansion has become a euphemism for “show me the money” Across all sports, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has added four teams in 38 years and has only grown and gained popularity.
I’ve often said that the NCAA tournament was so good that even the NCAA and its TV “partners” couldn’t screw it up. Games now typically last nearly 2 1/2 hours; there are 10 three-minute TV timeouts per game; there are 20-minute halftimes and middle-of-the-night news. And yet, we remain riveted.
Expansion won’t kill the NCAA tournament, but it will make it a lot less fun. The shark hasn’t been jumped yet, but it looms in the distance.