ATLANTA — When the Final Four convenes Saturday evening, it is oddly appropriate that it will do so in the massive Georgia Dome, a 70,000-seat venue built for football. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament dominates the sporting conversation each March, but as tradition-rich programs such as Louisville and Syracuse practiced Friday for their semifinal matchups against Wichita State and Michigan, respectively, people who have spent their entire lives in sweaty gymnasiums listening to the squeaking of sneakers are realizing they have very little say in their athletic futures.
This might be college basketball’s one shining moment, but football drives college athletic departments while basketball has been a (sometimes unwilling) passenger during a period of upheaval that has lasted a decade — and shows no sign of stopping. “March Madness” is the NCAA’s most well-known phrase capturing the organization’s signature event, yet its participating schools are at the mercy of another sport.
“We would give you diplomatic answers,” said Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, whose program, in 2014, will compete in its third conference in the last 10 years. “But inside, we’re not happy about it.”
Syracuse and Louisville are here representing the Big East Conference, a league formed specifically for basketball. But both schools are headed to the ACC because each has a football program that conference officials believe can help deliver television ratings and, ultimately, more lucrative network contracts. It is the same premise that is driving Maryland, which historically has a strong basketball program and a middling football program, out of the ACC in 2014, after the Big Ten came calling last year.
“It’s simple: The money you make from football is more than you can get from basketball,” said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who coached in the Big East, the Big Ten and the ACC. “It’s contracts. So I understand that part of it. . . . That’s led to every change in every conference.”
Indeed, the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8-billion television contract with CBS and Turner Sports to broadcast the men’s basketball tournament three years ago, but projections for a football playoff are much higher — easily topping $1 billion over eight years for just two semifinals and a final annually, according to analysis by Forbes.
But that dynamic can leave basketball people feeling as if they have no say. Williams remembers the first ACC expansion talks in 2003, when the league ultimately voted to bring Miami and Virginia Tech into the fold, followed by Boston College the next year. Williams said John Swofford, the conference’s commissioner, came into a meeting of the nine men’s basketball coaches, which included some of the most powerful figures in the sport — Williams, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and Roy Williams, who had just arrived to coach North Carolina — and asked them to vote on the proposed expansion.
“We voted nine-nothing not to expand,” Williams said, “and it never got to the athletic directors. The next morning, expansion took place.”
The numbers would show expansion hasn’t helped the ACC’s basketball profile. In the nine seasons since Miami and Virginia Tech — two supposed football powers — entered the ACC, the league has sent four teams to the Final Four. In the nine years prior to that expansion, it sent nine teams, including two schools in the same year twice. Meantime, its football teams haven’t appeared in a BCS title game since expansion.
“We had the best thing going,” Williams said. “And it’s gone.”
No basketball coach has been more resistant to the changes — at least outwardly — than Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, whose coaching career at his alma mater spans the entire 34-year history of the Big East. Over the past month, as his team played in the final Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, Boeheim lamented the Orange’s departure by saying: “It’s got nothing to do with basketball. . . . This is just to do with football.” Syracuse officials, meantime, argue they did what they could to resist football’s pull.
“The Big East ended up crumbling,” Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said Friday here. “And so someone offers you an unbelievable opportunity. You have a house that’s on fire, and someone says, ‘Well, you can come live in this mansion.’”
But those who care about college basketball say such a this-was-inevitable attitude highlights problems with the sport’s structure. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s control of what college football games aired on television violated antitrust laws. Since then, football conferences have negotiated their own deals with networks and bowls. The Southeastern Conference’s current deal brings in $205 million annually, the Pac-12’s $225 million. The season-ending Bowl Championship Series has been a controversial means to determine a champion, but it has been inarguably lucrative.
That brings an even starker contrast with basketball, in which the NCAA negotiates the postseason television deals. The NCAA awards national championships in 36 Division I sports, but has no say over the highest level of football, which is essentially autonomous — and, thus, powerful.
“What’s most bothersome about that, for basketball people, is not that football is more popular,” said Jay Bilas, who played in the Final Four for Duke and now is a prominent analyst at ESPN. “We live in a football culture. But the issue is that there’s nobody in charge of our game. We have no ability to move with the changing landscape. The sport needs its own governance. It needs a commissioner.
“What if pro sports were aligned, somehow, with the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NFL and NHL all governed out of one office, with one rulebook, one decision-making authority. It wouldn’t make any sense. Yet that’s what we have.”
Even some schools without top-level football programs have been affected. Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s and other longtime members of the Big East are essentially forming a new conference next year. One of the new members will be Creighton, which will leave the Missouri Valley Conference, in which it has competed since 1975. One of its rivals in “The Valley,” as the league is known, is Wichita State — with no football program, but watching the fallout anyway.
“The Valley has been an important part of us,” Wichita State Athletic Director Eric Sexton said Friday. “But as we go forward, we’ll continue to be vigilant and watch that ever-changing conference alignment to find the very best situation for Wichita State. If that requires us to look at things differently, we will.”
Friday afternoon, just more than 24 hours before his team played for a spot in the national championship game, Pitino sounded wistful about the way it once was, noting — as others have — that athletes from West Virginia, which joined the Big 12 last fall, must travel 800 miles to their closest league road game.
“The one thing I will say that’s different today than it was 10, 15 years ago — you’d get some B.S. answers from the administrators,” Pitino said. “[Now], they are being very transparent in saying, ‘It’s about money.’”
More precisely, it’s about football money, a driving force of change that even reaches basketball’s Final Four.
“We don’t like it, but we understand it,” Pitino said. “The one thing you can’t do is complain about it. Sometimes, you have to move on.”