John Feinstein: NCAA tournament expansion would make cents, but not sense

By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 7, 2010

If there is one thing you can absolutely count on from the NCAA, it is an almost unique form of slippery deceit. No one involved in its decision-making ever tells an outright lie. They also never tell an outright truth.

Everything is always being studied. Ask the NCAA its position on March coming after February and you will be told the issue is being studied. This is an organization that spent hours and hours last summer debating the merits of allowing member schools to feed bagels to their athletes. (Not surprisingly, the proposal came from the ACC because, heck, things are going so well in football and basketball, why not spend time on the bagel issue?)

In its infinite wisdom the NCAA came down in favor of bagels -- but against cream cheese to go with the bagels.


All of which makes the current debate over expansion of the NCAA men's basketball tournament entirely predictable. There is not one single reason to expand the tournament -- not one.

Oh sure, there are a few coaches in the major conferences who whine every year when their team with a 7-9 conference record and 10 cupcake wins on its home court doesn't make the field. There are the TV talking heads who talk about "deserving teams" that are left out, too. Whether they are deserving is questionable at best. The fact that teams actually have to play well to reach postseason is part of the tournament's magic.

In fact, the tournament should be made smaller -- one team smaller -- returning the number of tournament teams to 64, the perfect number until the Mountain West became an automatic-bid league and the power schools couldn't bear to part with one of their 34 at-large bids. Thus was born the play-in game (it's so NCAA to insist on calling it "the opening-round game") with two smaller schools sent to Dayton, Ohio, to try to play their way in to a first-round matchup with a No. 1 seed.

Now though, we are staring a 96-team field right in the face. Many people who have had contact with NCAA decision-makers recently say it is a "done deal." The NCAA will only admit it is studying "models" that would involve tournament expansion. What the heck is a model, some kind of Dick Vitale video game?

Here's the truth of what is going on right now: The NCAA has the right to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS this summer. ESPN-ABC has already made it crystal clear that if the contract is reopened it will throw huge Disney dollars at the NCAA to try to take the tournament away from CBS, which will televise the tournament for the 29th year starting next month. CBS, which doesn't want to lose the tournament, is already looking into taking on TNT as a cable partner to help defray costs and because an additional 32 games would make life tough on CBS in terms of giving up prime-time scheduling.

Realistically, the only way for either ESPN-ABC or CBS-TNT to come close to breaking even is for there to be more games for which to sell commercial time. As it is, CBS squeezes every possible second of commercial time into the games -- 20-minute halftimes, extending 30-second timeouts to 45 seconds, lengthening the nine TV timeouts. If the rights fee goes up drastically, more commercials will be needed.

That will probably mean more TV timeouts, even longer games and even more corporate mentions. "These free throws are brought to you by . . . "

But that won't be enough. Whichever network forks over the insane dollars the NCAA will ask for will need more games to even have a chance to break even. That's the only reason a 96-team tournament is being considered. It has nothing to do with making the tournament better -- it won't. Imagine a first round in which the highest-seeded teams playing are the No. 9 seeds in each region.

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