By Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010; D01
The NCAA is poised to expand the men's basketball tournament from 65 to 68 teams starting next year after reaching a 14-year, $10.8 billion television rights deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting that will allow every game to be shown live on one of four networks.
Thursday's announcement is expected to please many college basketball coaches who in recent years had been clamoring for expansion, while also placating March Madness fans who feared the prospect of a 96-team tournament, which had been one of the options considered in recent months.
The recommendation to expand to 68 teams -- which was unanimously made by the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee -- will be reviewed by the Division I Board of Directors this coming Thursday. NCAA interim president Jim Isch did not rule out a move to 96 teams in the future -- saying that "everything is still on the table and it will be a membership decision" -- but he said that adding three more teams to the current tournament format is the anticipated scenario for now.
"A number of people made assumptions that we were going to 96, when we were just conducting our due diligence," Isch said in a teleconference. "No decision had ever been made."
Sean McManus, the president of CBS News and CBS Sports, said: "We are very comfortable with 68 teams. That's what the deal is based on and it meets all our programming and financial needs."
What the agreement -- which also includes Internet, wireless and marketing rights -- means is that for the first time in the 73-year history of the tournament, every game will be shown live on national television. Beginning next season, first- and second-round games will be shown on four networks: CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV (formerly known as Court TV). All games will continue to be streamed online.
CBS will continue to televise the region finals, the Final Four and the national championship game through 2015. Starting in 2016, CBS and Turner will split coverage of the region finals, and the Final Four and national title game will alternate between CBS and Turner. In a teleconference, McManus said the decision to alternate Final Four games with Turner was a "necessary component to getting the deal done."
The NCAA had until July 31 to opt out of the final three years of its 11-year, $6 billion television deal with CBS. ESPN had also bid on the rights to the NCAA tournament.
"This is an important day for intercollegiate athletics and the 400,000 student-athletes who compete in NCAA sports," Isch said. "This agreement will provide, on average, more than $740 million annually to our conferences and member schools."
The NCAA had added only one team to the tournament (in 2001) since expanding to 64 teams in 1985. That 65th team created what amounted to a play-in game on the Tuesday before the tournament began in earnest on a Thursday afternoon in March.
Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's vice president of basketball and business strategies, said adding three more teams enables the NCAA to "round out the four regions for opening-round games." Further specifics on what a 68-team tournament would look like won't be finalized by the men's basketball committee until mid-summer, Shaheen said.
"I really think the only unanswered question will be, how do they choose to do the brackets and where do they play the play-in games?" said Jerry Palm, who predicts the NCAA tournament field on his Web site, CollegeRPI.com. "I don't think the [selection] criteria will change at all. They will just take three less-worthy teams than they have had before. And so you water it down with an eyedropper instead of a bucket like they were trying to do."
Avoiding expansion to 96 teams also means that the 32-team postseason National Invitation Tournament -- which essentially was expected to merge with the 65-team NCAA tournament in the 96-team model -- will continue to be played each March.
Most college coaches have endorsed expansion because they felt it would provide memorable experiences for more players, benefit capable teams that were excluded from the current field and perhaps even save jobs of colleagues who are evaluated on their ability to make the tournament. Some fans feared a bloated 96-team field and a watered-down regular season.
"Well, I think it's a good change; I really do," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, a longtime proponent of tournament expansion. "I think there were a lot of people against a big change to 96. I think there was quite a bit of push-back on that by most people. I think a small expansion is good. I might have liked to see a little bit bigger, but I understand in the present context that this is the easiest way to do it."
Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg, whose team fell short of an at-large bid last season, said this move might be paving the way for future expansion.
"I think [coaching peers] probably think we need more than 68," Greenberg said, "but I think they think 96 would take away from conference tournaments, and I am sure conference commissioners wouldn't want that because it takes away the value of postseason play because that's a huge revenue stream for all conferences. I think this is a starting point. It basically gives the whole concept time to breathe."