NCAA must answer multibillion-dollar question (cont.)
The NCAA is also dealing with the reality that its current 65-team tournament is unlikely to fetch as high a price tag as its current deal, struck in 1999 when both the economy and network television were in far better shape. While still hugely popular, the tournament has seen its viewership decrease over the years. In '99, the Connecticut-Duke title game earned a 17.2 rating, while the tournament garnered a 6.3 average rating for all 63 games. A decade later, last year's North Carolina-Michigan State finale recorded a 10.8 rating (the lowest number since Nielsen started tracking it), the overall tournament a 5.7.
One way to maintain or increase existing rights fees is to move some or all of the games to a cable network, which isn't dependent on advertising dollars like a traditional network. Sources confirmed to SI.com that CBS is partnering with Turner Sports (a division of Time Warner, which owns Sports Illustrated) for its proposal, and that ESPN, FOX, Comcast (which is currently in the process of merging with NBC and owns the cable sports channel Versus) and others are also in talks with the NCAA.
"Cable is the 800-pound gorilla," said TV sports consultant Neal Pilson, who was president of CBS Sports when it first acquired the tourney in 1982. "You look at ESPN, at $4 per subscriber, per month, times 100 million [subscribers]. That's a pretty big number. Turner is getting close to $1 per [subscriber]. Networks aren't generating any comparable dollars beyond their advertising."
It stands to reason, then, that the addition of a cable outlet would allow the NCAA to add more games, and in turn, presumably garner more revenue. A 96-team field would add 31 games, bringing the total to 95. It's easy to envision ESPN spreading those games across its various channels, or CBS moving the surplus games it currently licenses to DirecTV (for its "Mega March Madness" package) to TNT and/or TBS.
Pilson, however, isn't convinced that an expanded field would be good business for broadcasters.
"In the current economic environment, I don't think the broadcast industry needs more inventory in the marketplace," he said. "You lose pricing control [with advertisers] when you have a tremendous amount of inventory. Ninety-six [teams] would obviously give you many more games. I just don't think it's desirable from a television point of view or an economic point of view."
That being said, the NCAA tournament remains one of television's most coveted sports properties due to the participation of teams from every pocket of the country, and, "CBS will do whatever it can to retain it," said Pilson, even if it means begrudgingly accepting an expanded tourney field.
Meanwhile, another, less notable TV contract may play a part in the NCAA's decision: That of the NIT.
In 2005, as part of a $56.5 million settlement of an antitrust lawsuit, the NCAA took over ownership of the sport's so-called "consolation tournament." Suffice to say, the 32-team event does not bring in nearly as much as the NCAA must pay out. In a convenient coincidence, the NIT's current deal with ESPN expires after this season, and the NCAA has been simultaneously exploring what to do with that tournament going forward.
As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski suggested last fall, one possibility is simply to merge the two events. Why continue a money-draining tournament when you can move those same 32 teams to a more glamorous and lucrative event?
"We have a decision going forward as to how to proceed with the NIT -- should it continue in the same venue, should it move to a different venue?" said Ray, the Oregon State president. "Ultimately, the NCAA is responsible for 97 tournament teams. What is the best way for the NCAA to handle those teams going forward? This is something we will debate."
The biggest expansion proponents by far are the coaches, most of whom are evaluated on whether or not they regularly lead their team to the tournament. The more opportunity their teams have to participate, the better.
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Many point to the inequity between their sport and football, where the number of bowl berths has increased dramatically over the past 15 years (from 38 in 1994 to 68 last season). More than 56 percent of FBS football teams now reach the postseason, while fewer than 19 percent of the 347 Division I basketball teams garner NCAA bids.
"I'm not only for expansion, I think they ought to double the size of the field to 130 teams," Duquesne coach Ron Everhart told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "That still would only be a little more than a third of all Division I basketball teams in the field."
"You've got college basketball players who are responsible for 90 percent of the NCAA budget," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "Why shouldn't they have the same opportunities at the same percentage rate that other NCAA teams have in going to postseason play? Why not give them that experience?"
Ryan went so far as to say "it will be a crime" if expansion doesn't occur.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams has been one of the rare dissenters among his colleagues, saying that qualifying for the tourney should be "really hard to do."
Shaheen points out that of all the championships the NCAA administers, roughly "seven out of eight" -- 75 of 88, to be exact -- have expanded their fields over the past 10 years.
"We believe that the field size for the championship is something that requires regular examination," he said. "The variety of facts that's behind the growth of our membership, and the supply and demand of postseason opportunities, are all factors we look at, but the committee focuses on the overall [tournament] experience. That will ultimately steer their decision-making."
To that end, most fans and media, as well as some of the participants, believe the viewing experience will be dampened should the field expand. The symmetry of a 64-game bracket -- where everyone from Kansas to Coppin State plays on that first Thursday or Friday -- would be lost if a large number of teams (32 in a 96-team field) draw first-round byes. Extra games would either necessitate an extra weekend or be squeezed into weeknights in the existing calendar.
And while the idea of additional Cinderella teams might initially sound intriguing, critics believe the berths will go primarily to teams from the bottom half of the major conferences. Last year's lowest-ranked at-large team, Arizona, finished the regular season 19-13, with a No. 62 RPI rating. (In a nod to expansion proponents, the Wildcats reached the Sweet 16.) The lowest-rated of the 32 teams that did not receive an at-large berth, No. 84 Cincinnati, finished 17-14, 8-10 in the Big East.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, an outspoken expansion proponent for several years, contends that quality teams are being left out because "We have automatic qualifiers, so there's teams in there that aren't the best teams in the country." But isn't that what makes the event so special? This March, some team like Stony Brook will get the chance to face a team like Syracuse in the first round. In an expanded field, the Orange would get a bye while Stony Brook played a team that would currently be seeded ninth or 10th.
Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski, a basketball committee member who's had a direct hand in the selection process, says the notion of a "watered down" field isn't necessarily relevant.
"The right question is, would an expanded tournament allow us to stage a competitive and compelling tournament that retains that feel of being such a special event?" he said. "Would the matchups be competitive? Would they provide for a terrific level of competition throughout? That matters to me more than, 'Are we going to water down the field?' "
While the idea of a 96-team bracket seems unfathomable to most fans as of today, expansion proponents counter that the critics would acclimate themselves to the new format quickly enough.
"To me, it's foolish for those people who are saying it's perfect the way it is," Ryan said. "... The only people who would be disappointed would be all those people that have already printed out their 64-game bracket sheets. I think those can be changed."
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