NCAA Mulls Expanding March Madness. Are They Mad?

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John Dixon / AP

If the NCAA expands its tournament field to 96 teams, will teams like the Illini of Illinois make the cut?

There are a precious few things in this world that people can't complain about. The writing skills of Shakespeare, for example, or a pink sky from an ocean sunset. And of course, the NCAA men's basketball tournament, which tips off on Thursday. Sure, a few fans are irked that their schools got snubbed from the Big Dance. But the tournament itself, with its brackets, buzzer beaters and wall-to-wall ball during the first two days, may be the most delightful sporting event on earth. Even the debate about which teams got shafted is part of the tournament's charm.

So why is the NCAA thinking about tinkering with its beloved, billion-dollar basketball spectacle? The organization is investigating the possibility of expanding the tournament field to as many as 96 teams as early as next year (for you non-bracketheads out there, 65 teams play in the current field). Within basketball circles and among cubicle dwellers who relish filling out their brackets for the ubiquitous office pools, chatter about a broader tournament is dominating the discussion. "Absolutely, it's hot," says Phil Martelli, head basketball coach at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, of the expansion issue. "Very hot."

The NCAA is considering expansion for a variety of reasons. First, says NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen, a broader field would give more athletes a chance to experience the thrills of March Madness. Second, more games gives the organization extra chances to promote its educational mission and the life skills that playing college sports can teach. This is also known as the "whatever" or "give me a break" reason for expanding the tournament.

Despite the priority Shaheen places on those objectives, money is the main driver for a bigger tournament. The NCAA is finishing up the eighth year of an 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS, which broadcasts the tournament. After this season, the NCAA can opt out of the deal and seek new television partners. Knowing that they might not be able to secure a hefty rights fee for a new deal in a shaky economy, the extra games could secure additional revenue for the schools — NCAA members share the tournament revenue whether they play or not, so more games enlarges the pie. "The opportunity for securing long-term financial stability through such contracts is certainly a priority," says Shaheen. "Revenue stability is something that our membership relies upon and something we must strive for in service to them."

You can't blame the NCAA for looking after its finances. After all, college sports are a big-time business. And, proponents of expansion say, fans will soon get used to the bigger field. "Every time you had the tournament expanded, you had a lot of people who were against it," says CBS analyst Greg Anthony, who was point guard for the 1990 UNLV team that won the national title. "But ultimately, it proved to be the right decision." College basketball moved from a 53-team tournament to a 64-team event in 1985. "I love the tournament now," says Anthony. "I loved it when there were 48 teams. I loved it when there were 32 teams. And I'm going to love it if and when it becomes 96."

Other basketball experts sincerely believe that a bigger tournament would allow deserving teams into the Big Dance. Hall of Famer John Thompson, the ex-Georgetown coach, was against the idea before he broadcast the finals of the Colonial Athletic Conference tournament, which pitted Old Dominion against William & Mary. "I wasn't sold on it until I saw how good those two teams were," says Thompson. "Those kids deserve to be in the tournament as much as anybody. I asked myself if I would want to play against them, and I said hell no." Old Dominion won that game and faces Notre Dame in the first round on Thursday; William & Mary was forced to settle for a spot in the NIT, one of the consolation tournaments.

Despite such noble sentiments, expanding the tournament would still be a mistake. Sure, the NCAA could squeeze a few extra dollars out of the television networks by adding an extra round of games. But schools could also lose money if an expanded tournament devalues the regular season to the point that they sell fewer tickets to those games, or if television networks don't pony up as much dough to broadcast battles in January and February. "I don't think it's good for the game," says Martelli, one of the few coaches who have come out against the expansion plan. "The beauty of college basketball is that Wisconsin vs. Indiana, on a Tuesday night in January, is full of vim and vigor."

If two teams know they'll be in a 96-team tournament, is their regular-season game as attractive a product? "I think we all in college basketball have to be certain that we try to protect what's so special about it," says Dan Gavitt, associate commissioner for the Big East Conference. One expert recently predicted that 13 out of the 16 Big East teams would have qualified for a 96-team tournament. So you would think that a guy like Gavitt would be pushing hard for a larger field. However, knowing that such a scenario would render the Big East regular season and conference tournament practically meaningless, he's hesitant to approve of it.

Bottom line: A 96-team tournament would prove too unwieldy. "If it's really just about the kids, don't stop at 96," says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played at Duke in the mid-1980s. "Let all 3,400 Division 1 teams in." (There are 347 basketball teams in Division 1.) Bilas believes a diluted tournament would ultimately inflict long-term harm to college basketball. "I just think there aren't 96 good basketball teams," he says. "And so what we're essentially saying is that we're going to allow 32 more teams who we think are just as good as the crummy teams that are in at the end of the line. That sounds harsh, but this ain't Little League, where everybody gets to play three innings and everyone gets a trophy and certificate of participation."

The whole argument boils down to a simple question: Why meddle with something that works? "If they do it, there will be unintended consequences," says Bilas. "The regular season and conference tournaments will be devalued. Then who's going to care about who gets snubbed? You think people are going to be asking, 'What does my team have to do to get in?' They have to stay alive. If they stay alive and nobody dies, [they'll] make it." In which case, March Madness would lose some of its luster.