NCAA must answer multibillion-dollar question (cont.)
Finally, administrators must consider what effect an expanded tournament might have on the sport's regular season, which seems to become more and more devalued every year. Unlike football, which captures as strong a following from beginning to end, many fans don't bother paying close attention to regular-season college basketball until the tourney draws near.
For example, CBS, even with its vested interest in the sport, devoted just one regionalized broadcast window both Saturday, Feb. 20 and Sunday, Feb. 21 -- just three weeks before Selection Sunday. Should it lose the tournament, the network will almost certainly drop the sport entirely.
"I don't know about [expansion] threatening the popularity of the tournament as much as having more dilution of the regular season," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told The Sporting News. "I do think the tournament is elegant in the way that it's structured, but I'm more concerned about, What does this mean for the sport of basketball from November through March?"
Bobinski said any discussion of a diminished regular season is purely "conjecture."
"I understand why people would make that argument, but I don't know how you could prove that one way or the other," he said. "You can look at the other side of that -- instead of lessening the importance of the regular season, maybe [expansion] would increase the importance? It makes it a very challenging topic."
Delany has been outspoken in his frustration that ground-level administrators like himself haven't been afforded a greater role in the NCAA's current discussions. "I certainly hadn't anticipated it was a likely occurrence," he said.
Shaheen insists that any decisions about the tournament's future will be addressed amongst a broad group of decision-makers. "Our entire membership -- our commissioners, our athletic directors -- will all be involved if there's anything to have a discussion about," he said. "The opt-out [exploration] is just a normal course of business matter."
Ultimately, however, this colossally important discussion will wind up in the hands of a small group of people -- Shaheen's team; the board of directors; and, most notably, Isch, the NCAA's interim president who, because of the timing of the July 31 opt-out deadline, may wind up having to authorize the organization's most important decision in a decade.
"I don't know if we can have a new president in place by the end of July -- we're aiming for fall -- so it may be that it falls to Jim on his watch to make some very hard decisions," Ray said. "[Jim] is not going to hide in a closet somewhere and make a decision, he's going to talk to a lot of people he respects."
While the NCAA's request-for-proposal to the networks laid out hypothetical 68- and 96-team models, a source told SI.com that bidders are free to pitch other models, such as a compromise 80-team field (which would give first-round byes to the top 16 teams). Another source suggested that expansion could be instituted in phases, since it would be extremely difficult to rearrange schedules and secure additional sites with less than a year's notice.
Meanwhile, multiple sources indicated CBS is hopeful it can preempt other bidders by announcing a contract extension around the time of the Final Four.
"If we receive an offer that [Isch] believes to be in the Association's best long-term interests with the existing field size, he could certainly make the same decision," Shaheen said.
In the meantime, the Board of Directors is fully expecting to hold an expansion discussion at its next scheduled meeting on April 29 in Indianapolis.
"I'm approaching it with an open mind because I do not have a full grasp of the consequences and unintended consequences that come with doing something as enormous as an expansion of the field," Ray said. "I really think we are going to have a very good discussion."
This much is certain. Nearly all the various parties with a vested interested in the tourney seem far more open to expansion possibilities than the general public.
Will March Madness still resonate in the nation's cubicles and sports bars if the bracket becomes more bloated? The NCAA has several billion dollars riding on that question -- and the clock is ticking to come up with an answer.
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors