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Don’t Mess With Perfection

March 31, 2010 Columns No Comments

The NCAA Tournament is perfect.

Yeah, I said it. And yes, I recognize my bias as a college basketball writer and unapologetic fan.

But really, how can you argue about the thrills of a single-elimination tournament in which 65 out of 347 teams — 18.7 percent — qualify for the field? Within three weeks and a day after Selection Sunday, a new champion cuts down the nets after winning six consecutive games. To accomplish that feat, the eventual champion must beat a collection of teams that have proven to be among the best throughout the entire season.

But alas, there’s money involved — lots of it. The NCAA is nearly three-quarters through an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS. The value of that contract is staggering but justified. NCAA officials suspect that they could net an even bigger contract by adding more teams to the tournament, thus adding another round.

When the NHL lost an entire season to a prolonged strike in 2004, ESPN filled its suddenly open midweek prime time schedule with more college basketball games. Guess what? Fans watched. Now we have Big Monday, Super Tuesday and ACC Wednesday. It’s like a list of bar specials.

However, the only post-season action ESPN gets is the play-in game and NIT. Do you think Disney executives would like a shot at bidding on the rights to televise an extra round of the NCAA Tournament? They might even make a play for all rounds before the Sweet 16, if not the whole kit and kaboodle. Regardless of what offer ESPN execs might be cooking up, the sheer economics of open markets dictates that the NCAA would get an even bigger contract from CBS or Disney if the association opts out of its CBS contract by this summer.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany recently said he thinks the NCAA Tournament will probably expand by next season. Delany is one of the power brokers in Division I college basketball, though he does not sit on any committees that will decide the fate of the NCAA Tournament. And let’s hope that somehow, despite the potential windfall, he’s wrong.

Take a look at how the NCAA Tournament compares to other major sports’ post-seasons.

  • MLB: Eight teams out of 30 (26.7 percent) participate in a tournament that lasts four to five weeks.
  • NBA: 16 teams out of 30 (53.3 percent) participate in a tournament that lasts eight to nine weeks.
  • NCAA Division I football: 68 teams out of 119 (57.1 percent) participate in bowl games. However, there’s no tournament, and computerized calculations determine the national championship game match up.
  • NHL: 16 teams out of 30 (53.3 percent) participate in a tournament that lasts eight to nine weeks.
  • NFL: 12 teams out of 32 (37.5 percent) participate in a tournament that lasts four weekends in five weeks.

Not surprisingly, the NBA and NHL post-season gauntlet is utterly exhausting — for players and fans. It’s not a good thing if teams limit key players’ minutes throughout the regular season to keep them fresh for the post-season. Likewise, fans struggle to maintain energized through a two month-long playoff run. The NHL and NBA both hovered around 10 million viewers for most of their championship series games. That’s a third less than the numbers the NCAA Tournament and BCS championship tallied. The World Series Game 6 clincher for the Yankees drew 22 million fans — mostly because it’s the Yankees. And of course, the juggernaut that is the Super Bowl set a record this year with 106 million viewers.

The NCAA Tournament championship games regularly draws 17 million to 23 million viewers, making it one of the three most popular championships among major U.S. sports. Would adding another round and stretching it out to four weeks diminish interest? That could easily happen if the effect of expansion is sloppy games played by mediocre teams.

If the NCAA expands the tournament to 96 teams, it almost certainly would need to fold the NIT, which would be stuck with the third- or fourth-best teams from mid-major and minor conferences or cellar dwellers from power conferences. In recent years, the NCAA purchased the NIT to dodge an antitrust lawsuit and has reinvigorated the secondary post-season tournament. But despite the improvements to the NIT, anyone watching this year’s NIT would be hard pressed to argue that those teams belong in the NCAA Tournament. The quality of play is not on the same level as NCAA Tournament games.

In the consumer marketplace, corporations that openly slash quality in favor of a quick profit tend to face an immediate backlash. In the NCAA’s case, the public outcry would be loud and vitriolic. But the NCAA has a monopoly on the post-season. And even if we shout about unworthy teams reaching the supposedly most exclusive post-season tournament, we’ll still watch. And the NCAA executives know that.

Ironically, the only way to show the NCAA executives that expansion is a terrible idea would be to stop watching the regular season and early rounds of the NCAA Tournament if they do opt for 96 teams. If the NCAA feels like it can cash in on the rich value of its product, a collective disinterest in the regular season would tarnish that value. But that would mean we all lose.

Expansion is understandable, especially when the NCAA has an opportunity to unearth a pot of gold in the middle of a recession. And inviting more teams to the Big Dance sounds fair. But it’s a short-sighted strategy with potentially serious ramifications that would undermine the value of the product that NCAA executives are so proud of in the first place.

The NCAA Tournament isn’t broken. Stop trying to fix it.

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