- The NCAA did the right thing with its latest men's tournament expansion package
- All games will be available on live television
- New contract is a 40 percent increase in revenue for the NCAA
Four words rarely strung together: Bravo to the NCAA.
Bravo for not bloating your men's basketball tournament beyond recognition.
And bravo for crafting a lucrative rights contract that puts every tournament game on live television.
Now please don't hose us when our guard is down.
Fans of all stripes were in proper defensive stance this past season as the NCAA, pressured by coaches and anxious to make more money, floated the idea of expanding the field from 65 to 96 teams. Despite near universal condemnation from fans and media, the deal appeared done.
Thank goodness it wasn't.
Last week the NCAA unveiled plans to grow the field to 68, an expansion that merely increases the number of play-in, or opening-round, games from one to four. In essence, one game for each of the bracket's regions.
Who will play in those contests is unresolved, but the NCAA should avoid simply taking the eight lowest-rated teams, invariably champions of smaller conferences. Rather it should take the eight lowest-rated at-large selections, teams that often hail from marquee leagues and carry pedestrian records.
The tweak not only would remove the play-in stigma but also elevate television ratings. For example, an opening-round game last month between Virginia Tech and Illinois, teams bypassed for the field of 65 that might have been included at 68, would have attracted far more viewers than did the actual game between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop.
Future viewers will be watching on CBS and Turner Broadcasting's cable platforms under terms of a 14-year, $10.8-billion deal also announced last week. The contract is remarkable for its scope and value.
CBS's previous arrangement with the NCAA paid the association $6 billion over 11 years, an annual average of $545 million. The new deal averages $771 million, a 41.5-percent increase.
A windfall of more than 40 percent in this economy? Goes to show how popular the tournament's present format, essentially unchanged since 1985, is.
What will change is how fans watch the tournament.
No longer will we be screaming at the television for CBS, the sole provider, to bail on the "game of interest" for a particular area in favor of a closer contest elsewhere. Instead, we'll switch to TBS or TNT or truTV (make sure your cable outlet carries) for the game that most jazzes us.
Jim Isch, the NCAA's interim president, said live broadcast of all games was "a driving force" in negotiations. The NCAA's admirable aim seemed a precursor to ESPN adding the tournament to its vast empire, but either the Worldwide Leader low-balled its bid, or the NCAA somehow resisted the prospect of Digger Phelps providing color commentary.
The question now becomes whether the NCAA can resist the expansion efforts sure to transpire in the coming years.
Was the talk of 96 a red herring meant to make 68 palatable? Did the NCAA actually react to public opinion? Is a 96-team monstrosity inevitable?
Fans should borrow a page from the coaching handbook: Never relax on defense.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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