As momentum gathers to expand the NCAA men's basketball tournament to 68 or even 96 teams, Times college basketball writer Bud Withers believes expansion equals watering down a tournament that works well.
Item: Behind the scenes, administrators of the NCAA basketball tournament are in TV discussions to expand the event, possibly to 96 teams.
Comment: No, no, no, no and no.
But will sound logic trump the prospect of more money into college coffers?
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These are the particulars: The NCAA tournament will this year pass the eighth season of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS, at which point the NCAA has an opt-out clause and can shop for a better deal than the $2.13 billion it stands to reap in the final three years of a backloaded agreement.
Talks are ongoing with potential TV partners. Sports Business Journal reported last week that CBS and Turner Sports are in discussions for a joint bid. The publication, citing an NCAA request-for-proposal it obtained, wrote that “the NCAA has set its sights on expanding from a 65-team tournament to either 68 or 96 teams” if it opts out of the current CBS agreement.
“I can assure you no one on the committee has established a bona fide position,” Dan Guerrero, committee chairman and UCLA athletic director, told me a couple of weeks ago.
That could happen relatively soon. The SBJ quoted industry sources as saying the opt-out decision must come by Aug. 31.
Meanwhile, there are many basketball coaches shamelessly promoting expansion. It’s about covering your backside. Think of all the coaches who escape the hot seat if 12 out of 16 Big East teams are in the tournament. (Come to think of it, 12 of 16 Big East teams may make it anyway.)
I like what North Carolina coach Roy Williams said last week. Talking about qualifying for the tournament, he said, “I do think it’s something that should be really hard to do.”
Some people are pointing out that 68 of 120 major schools played in bowl games after the 2009 season, a far greater percentage than get to the NCAA tournament.
Like the bowl system is something we should be emulating?
As is, the tournament is like bases being 90 feet apart on a diamond. It just works. It fits neatly into a three-weekend box. There’s room for the little guy, even if the odds are astronomical. Last March, Robert Morris, Stephen F. Austin and Morgan State were part of it.
I see problems with either a 68- or 96-team tournament. The 68-team event would have four play-in games. So you quadruple the bane of the current 65-team tournament, the single play-in, in which neither feels like a part of the event until one wins.
A 96-team extravaganza would of necessity change the first-weekend days — workable, probably — but 32 teams drawing byes stirs another bees nest. When the tournament was 48 teams in the early 1980s, there was considerable debate about whether a bye actually worked against those having one.
So the 96-team format could evolve like that 48-team event into one without byes — with 128 teams. Spare us.
Another key issue to be addressed is the impact expansion might have on possible devaluation of conference tournaments. As in: How interested TV would be in them, or not.
Especially with a 96-team field, I think university presidents will have some ‘splainin’ to do on two fronts. First, there’s the additional missed class time, always advanced as a reason not to have a college football playoff.
Second, if the “expansion teams” are largely from the power conferences, do we re-stoke the prickly football discourse about access, and revenue splits among the big leagues and the lesser ones?
Don’t do it, people. Not until the World Series is best seven-of-13 and they move Christmas to Dec. 9.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org