To expand or not to expand: That's the multibillion-dollar question
Talk of expanding NCAA tourney from 65 to as many as 96 teams is serious
The NCAA can opt out of its current CBS deal and create a feeding frenzy
Parties with a vested interested seem far more open to expansion than the public
The calendar turned to March this week, which means one of our nation's most celebrated sporting events is just around the corner. Two Sundays from now, CBS studio host Greg Gumbel will read off the names of 65 college basketball teams. Millions of fans around the country will race to fill out their brackets. Many will find excuses to skip work or take long lunch breaks the following Thursday and Friday, as another NCAA tournament tips off.
But behind the scenes, executives in charge of this multibillion-dollar event are holding discussions that could drastically alter the future of March Madness. On the eve of potential network television renegotiations, committees and panels representing the NCAA and its members must soon decide whether to implement the first major expansion of the tourney's field in 25 years.
"There is any variety of future possibilities being considered," said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior VP of basketball and business strategies. "The options, trust me, are endless."
Last month, the popular blogger SportsByBrooks reported that unnamed ESPN sources claimed the NCAA's move to a 96-team men's basketball tournament was a "done deal." Nothing involving the NCAA happens that quickly, but it's clear that expansion -- long dismissed as a far-fetched possibility -- is a distinct possibility. The SportsBusiness Journal obtained a copy of a request-for-proposal the NCAA issued late last year to numerous media entities gauging interest in a possible 68- or 96-team field.
Public reaction to the possibility has been ... well, apoplectic. In a USA Today poll asking readers whether the NCAA should expand, 80 percent voted "no." Washington Post columnist Tracee Hamilton called it "the worst idea in the history of ideas." A headline on the popular Michigan fan site MGoBlog.com read: "The 96 Team NCAA Tournament: A Plot Against America."
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Nothing has happened yet. Based on conversations with numerous officials across the sport, it's clear that discussions about the topic have been ongoing for years, and several steps remain before any decision will be reached. And yes, there's the possibility that nothing will happen.
But Shaheen, the tournament's unofficial czar, has spent much of his time recently jetting around the country to brief university presidents, conference commissioners and athletic directors on the latest developments. At one point, he visited 13 cities in five days. The timing is such that the NCAA will have to make some definitive decision about the tournament's future within the next five months -- and there are numerous reasons some form of expansion seems increasingly likely.
The NCAA is in the eighth year of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS for the rights to March Madness. The deal accounts for more than 90 percent of the organization's annual revenue, which is used in large part to stage its other 87 championship events.
The CBS deal includes an extremely rare clause that allows the NCAA to opt out of the final three years (2011-'13) -- with no obligation to CBS -- if it does so by July 31. The organization can openly solicit offers from other entities, which is exactly what it's doing in gauging networks' interest in a potentially expanded format.
"You've got a situation where the people who are responsible for the television future of the tournament have an obligation to explore every different option out there to determine what's in the best interest of the NCAA," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive. "It would be irresponsible, given the magnitude of this issue, not to explore every conceivable option."
Knowing the timing of the opt-out window, Myles Brand, the NCAA's president of seven years who died from pancreatic cancer last September, began instituting an exploration process as far back as 2004. He put the task largely in the hands of a small circle of advisors, most notably Shaheen, who oversees the NCAA's Corporate and Broadcast Alliances group; Jim Isch, formerly the NCAA's chief financial officer, now its interim president; and the Division I basketball committee (known more commonly as the selection committee), a panel of 10 commissioners and athletic directors that administers the tournament and to which Shaheen is a liaison.
"Any contract itself is the responsibility of the president. So that's the starting point," Shaheen said. "And then, as it relates to field or tournament structure, that starts with the basketball committee. Those 10 people are spending time throughout the year looking at the game of college basketball and how it plays out. It is the starting point to which any proposal regarding the tournament would originate."
Slive, who recently completed a five-year term on the basketball committee (which meets five times per year), said the group has discussed expansion on and off for years, but that the discussion turned more serious within the past year.
"The question of the size of the tournament is an evergreen issue that comes up on a regular basis," he said. "But in anticipation of the [TV] window coming up, the basketball committee spent a substantial portion of the past year discussing the various options in an effort to get ready for the discussions."
While Shaheen noted that the interim president is authorized to approve any new contract, the Division I board of directors -- an oversight panel comprised of 18 university presidents and chancellors -- will "evaluate and approve any format change."
"The Division I board will be making a recommendation at some point whether there will be an expansion in the tournament," said Oregon State president Ed Ray, who serves on the Board of Directors and chairs the committee charged with hiring Brand's successor. "The reason that it's getting as much attention as it is now is that this is the opt-out year with CBS, and it's natural if you're talking about the tournament for a number of years to come, to discuss whether there should be expansion.
"These two conversations are converging, but nothing is going to happen in the dead of night."
To walk away from the existing CBS contract would require quite the sweetheart deal, since more than a third of its total value ($2.13 billion) is due over the next three years. The NCAA seems to be seeking both added revenue streams and long-term stability (according to SportsBusiness Journal, the NCAA is seeking a 14-year deal). One reason it may choose to exercise its opt-out rather than wait another three years to renegotiate is that it currently has the market to itself. ESPN's Monday Night Football contract and FOX and TBS' Major League Baseball deals also expire in 2013, and networks will soon begin bidding on rights for the 2014 and 2016 Olympics.
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