Conferences cash in on postseason tournaments
Posted: Friday March 12, 2004 11:48AM; Updated: Friday March 12, 2004 11:57AM
Here we are, a joyous weekend for college hoops fans, when the TV clicker is treasured and hefty coin is dropped to take in a conference tournament. You could argue it's the best drama this side of the NCAA tournament itself. Heck, get lucky for a few games and the ugliest of dogs can earn an invite to the Big Dance.
That's all true, right? But let's acknowledge the bottom line: conference tournaments are all about money. Given a choice, no coach in his right mind would book his team for three games in as many days on the eve of the NCAAs.
Yeah, they create a buzz with alums and sports fans, alike. Noon to midnight TV coverage will do that. You could make a case, though, that tourney play won't dramatically influence the NCAA field or seeding come Sunday, barring a major upset or two this weekend [i.e. the canine act pulled by St. Joseph's].
Yet it's because of the almighty dollar that conferences like the Big 10 and Pac-10 finally have bought into a postseason tourney. It can be argued that ACC honchos didn't see dollar signs when the movement tipped off 51 years ago, but the college game's most storied conference tournament surely is the leading cash cow today.
How much the ACC will bring in this weekend is as guarded as Jason Giambi's offseason weight loss, and it may be because no one really knows for sure. Suffice to say, the tourney is good for $5.7 million, alone, in ticket revenue this weekend in Greensboro, N.C. That fails to factor in TV rights fees, which aren't broken out from the conference's regular-season deal.
The hidden beauty here is ticket demand remains so hot that the ACC office hasn't sold them directly since 1966, leaving the schools to broker tickets -- maybe a Congressional subcommittee needs to hold hearings on this practice, too -- priced at $260 per game to their most wealthy supporters. This year, each school is allocated 2,430 tickets. A fundraising arm of the athletic department, which requires an additional donation in order to buy your tickets, routinely handles the sale.
"It is hard to put an estimate on it because schools use tickets as a fundraising tool,'' ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat said of projected tourney revenue. "You can only get tickets through the institution, so the institution uses it as a technique or means to giving money to the university. So you accumulate points based on your giving. That gives you the right to purchase the ticket.''
Great, but let's call this hustle what it is -- March Money Madness. You have institutions of higher learning, through the NCAA, inking a $6 billion TV basketball deal with CBS. You have college coaches, who already pull down salaries double and triple of college presidents, scoring bonuses based on postseason performance.
It goes from Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech pocketing $7,500 and Washington State's Dick Bennett $10,000 for berths in their respective conference tournaments to Tubby Smith guaranteed $15,000 for an SEC title, plus another 50 grand for a Final Four appearance.
The schools gladly pay because there's money in big-time college sports. Myles Brand, head of the NCAA, can't deny it when he earns nearly $800,000 a year -- twice what he earned as president of Indiana University. Commissioners of the major sports conferences pull down in the neighborhood of a half-million dollars.
According to the latest tax filings, the Big East reported almost $5 million in net assets from its basketball conference, alone. That's still chump change alongside $15 million for the ACC and the SEC's impressive $40 million.
SEC officials, who tend to be less paranoid than others, acknowledge that their basketball tourney netted $3.6 million last year -- which is thought to be on par with profits from the Big East, Big 10 and Big 12 tournaments. That doesn't include any TV money. And it's after expenses of $1 million.
The SEC might also be the only conference yet to turn a profit from its women's tournament, with officials claiming to be nearly $200,000 in the black after covering team expenses.
"You can see from the numbers alone that from a financial perspective the [men's] tournament is a very significant success,'' offered Brad Davis, SEC associate commissioner. "But we also started with 12 SEC schools that had a chance to win. What that does is keeps your teams motivated. Fans are certainly interested later in the season. And the exposure is important. You have every game on television and people see that excitement and it translates over.''
That means future deals and dollars, of course. So don't foolishly believe, say, Duke-North Carolina or Kentucky-Mississippi State are about just in-your-face competition, bragging rights and seeding.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.