CBKB: Only drawback to bigger tourney is smaller print
By JIM LITKE
AP Sports Columnist
Instead of the usual hyperventilating, what we got this Selection Sunday were halfhearted groans. Even the guys with legitimate gripes held their tongues. Get used to it.
After learning their teams weren’t among the 65 invitees, the harshest word coaches Seth Greenberg of Virginia Tech and Bruce Weber of Illinois could muster was “disappointing.” Mostly, they blamed themselves. Either could have fumed about how much more demanding it is to win in a big-time conference than in a mid-major.
But both knew better.
This is already one of the weakest NCAA tournament fields in years, maybe ever. Get used to that, too. Instead of arguing over who got left out, the conversation is about to shift to how many should get in. The tournament is going to expand whether you like it or not — if not next year then very likely soon after the NCAA’s TV deal with CBS ends in 2013.
“A lot is at stake here,” NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen said.
It’s worth noting Shaheen said that while attending a CBS-sponsored event in New York last week. His organization has until July 31 to decide whether to opt out of the current 11-year, $6 billion deal, which means he and the CBS execs who were his hosts could be facing each other across a bargaining table just a few months from now. So far, though, both parties like the arrangement.
“Our history is that CBS keeps events it wants to keep on the network. We’ve always done a good job of renewing rights,” network president Sean McManus said at the same event. “I think that should follow then for the NCAA tournament.”
If only it were that simple. Because its contract with CBS is backloaded, the NCAA will receive about $700 million a year, on average, for the final three years.
The only way the NCAA opts out of the deal is if another network, say ESPN, offers to match the money and adds more years. And the only way that deal gets made is if the NCAA offers even more product. And the chances that will happen, and when?
Depends on who you ask.
McManus, even while describing himself as just “an interested spectator’ in the expansion debate, said, “One thing I’ve learned about sports fans is that they’re very adaptable. The wild card idea in baseball — a lot of hard-core baseball fans were opposed. I think it now generates a lot more interest. Generally speaking, when expansion has happened, it has increased interest in the overall sport itself.”
Most of the coaches and former coaches who’ve chosen sides like the idea. Bob Knight and John Wooden talked about opening up the tournament to every Division I member years ago. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, probably the most vocal advocate in the game today, practically declared it a litmus test, suggesting any coach who opposed expansion might be in the wrong business.
Boeheim proposed adding between four and six teams at a meeting of the National Association of Basketball Coaches in 2006. Other models range from a 68-team field on up to 80 or 96. Since the NCAA gets most of its operating revenue from the tournament, look for the final version will come in on the high end.
“Sixty-five teams has proven to be a winner in every respect. With that being said, this is not about today,” said Dan Guerrero, chairman of the basketball committee and another of CBS’ invited guests. “It’s really about the future.”
Expansion has been on the agenda for several years now, but the talk has only turned serious this season, in large part because of the opt-out clause in the current deal. The NCAA has said even a 96-team tournament, assuming first-round byes for the top 32 teams, could still be squeezed into the current three-week time frame.
There’s plenty of opposition, and not just from purists.
“Some are very, very open-minded about the possibility,” Guerrero said about his discussions with athletic directors. “Some don’t want to see it.”
The tournament included 32 teams in 1978. The last meaningful expansion, to 64 teams, occurred in 1985. The number of schools playing Division I men’s basketball that year was 284. There are 343 today.
Some of the same objections were raised each time the tournament got bigger: expanding the field cheapens the accomplishment and dilutes the impact of the regular season. Yet the sport has never been more popular. The underlying appeal of the basketball tournament, unlike the jerry-rigged football version run by the Bowl Championship Series, is that it never fails to deliver a worthy champion.
More teams will only enhance it — no matter how small the print on your bracket page gets.