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Expanding The NCAA Tournament Would Further Erode An Already Suffering Sport

It’s Championship week in college basketball, and it’s a thrilling time to watch teams from smaller conferences earn their way into the Big Dance.  While few believe that the regular season is what it used to be (especially when compared to college football), the hoops postseason is one of the top sporting events of the year.

Fans have long been sold on the dynamic of March basketball where the victors this week get the chance to upset the big boys in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Filling out a bracket of the field of 64 has become an American tradition each Spring, as even the most casual observer becomes a passionate fan for the three weeks of the Dance.  

However, for the past few seasons, we have heard more and more - mainly from college basketball coaches - about expanding the tournament to 96 teams. While the coaches have the obvious motive of job preservation, the other argument for expansion is additional money for the NCAA with an additional weekend of games:

The NCAA clearly expects that the added week of games would significantly increase the tournament’s rights fee. A larger field would mean more content, more scheduling opportunities and theoretically more revenue for the broadcaster and the NCAA, which derives more than 90 percent of its total annual revenue from the tournament’s media deal. Nearly all of that revenue passes through the NCAA and is distributed to its member institutions.

While we understand the desire to maximize dollars, changing the format of the NCAA Tournament appears to be a classic case of trying to fix something that is not broken. The extra weekend would severely sour the first round of games where fans all over the country are glued to televisions with each possible upset. Many experts believe that there are barely enough “bubble” teams this season with quality enough resumes to fill out the current field. Adding another layer of games would take away from this week of Conference tournaments and would lessen the drama of big league teams trying to secure at at-large bid.

Furthermore, this whole effort strikes us as trying to put a finger in a bursting dam. College basketball's current ills are well documented.  The sport is suffering enough from one-and-done players.  Many average fans have a hard enough time of getting to know teams during the hoops regular season as they wait for the exciting Tournament.  

You only get to see Kevin Durant, O.J. Mayo, Derrick Rose, John Wall, etc. for one season before they head to the NBA. As soon as most fans start to identify with the top players, they are off to the professional ranks and a whole new batch of stars attempts to define the next season. It’s very difficult to believe we’ll see another Florida team like the 2006-2007 group that came back to win consecutive National titles.

Adding teams to the Dance would just make the regular season more meaningless than it has already become, and would most likely damage the love that so many have for March Madness. Each sport has its appeal, and the NCAA Tournament is obviously college basketball’s big draw.

If the powers that be truly want to bring more media value and fan interest to college basketball, our suggestion would be to go in the exact opposite direction of where the conversation is heading.  The NCAA should be looking at making it harder for teams to make the field by having the regular season, especially a team's conference success, become the determining factor for entry.  How much more compelling would the regular season be if NCAA bids were limited to regular season conference champions, conference divisional champions, and conference tourney champions?

Consider the drama this would create. Let's take a look at the Duke/UNC rivalry which is considered the best in the sport. Right now, the ACC doesn't even employ divisions in their basketball play, but this change would force them to do so.  If they kept their football divisional lineup, Duke and UNC would be in the same division.  That would mean the team that didn't win the division during the regular season would have to win the conference tournament to go to the Dance.

If the rivalry is heated now, imagine it after this kind of change.

Think also of the trickle-down effect.  The regular season would mean more.  The conference tournaments would mean more.  All of a sudden, the entire sport is worth more.  Certainly, this would shift the percentages so that the non-NCAA tournament season would be worth more than 10% of the total revenue. 

Before hoops lovers cry foul (especially those schools who believe their entry into the tournament is a birthright), isn't this type of difficult road to a championship exactly how college football works?  No matter how well a major conference divisional runner-up is playing by season's end, it will have no chance to win a national title.  Why should a college basketball team be able to do so?  

One effect no one can argue - almost every game would become meaningful overnight.

On a final note, the tournament expansion talk should also serve as a word of warning to those clamoring for a college football playoff.  For years, proponents of a college football playoff have pointed to the NCAA tournament as the standard.  However, this current drive to expand the hoops tourney field gives an indication of where a college football playoff would soon head: a worthless regular season combined with a constant drive to expand the playoff field.  Rather than serving as an argument for a college football playoff, this effort to expand the field is proving the playoff critics correct.



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