We’re just a few days away from my favorite sports days of the year—the first round of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, more commonly called March Madness. Or The Big Dance. Those are the days when we see the big upsets, Cinderella trying to knock off Goliath (if I may mix my sports metaphors). The tournament is entertaining after that, but nothing compares to the frenzy of the first round. (Sure, if your favorite team is fighting for a title, I’m sure the later rounds are better, but the neutral fan is hungry for the cinderella stories, not the title contenders).
Over the decades the tournament gradually expanded; at first, only conference champions were allowed into the tourney. In 1975 at-large teams were added, and the tournament grew to 32 teams, then 40, then 48, and eventually 64. Now it’s at 65 with a largely irrelevant play-in game. 64 was perfect. No byes, no play-in games, just a perfectly balanced bracket. A few years ago they added a 65th team. The rationale at the time was that the NCAA had just gotten another conference (and thus another automatic bid), so expanding the tournament by one would keep the same number of at-large teams. Which is okay, I suppose. All it does is put an extra at-large team somewhere around the 11-12 seeds and bump the champions of the tiny conferences down a spot, putting the worst of them into the play-in game.
Now some people are calling for an expansion of the field to 96 teams. There are a number of arguments in favor of this, some better than others. The number one reason it will likely happen sooner or later is money. The tournament is the NCAA’s cash cow. In 1999, CBS signed an 11-year, $6 billion contract extension with the NCAA. That’s a lot of cash. And with that contract ending soon (2013), and the NCAA having an opt-out clause after this season, they may very well feel that more games (i.e. more chances for networks to sell commercials) could increase their revenues. There’s the possibility of a bidding war between CBS and ESPN, so it’d make sense to expand now instead of in the middle of a contract. Continue reading ‘expanding march madness’