- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Today brought some fantastic news: Contrary to popular belief, the NCAA tournament isn't expanding to 96 teams. I know, right? Deep breaths. Sigh of relief. All that and more. Considering the widespread consensus that the NCAA's decision to opt out of its current contract with CBS and pursue a richer deal was pursuant on its new network having more NCAA tournament games to show, this news wasn't just pleasant. It was also surprising. In this case, who doesn't love a good surprise?
Based on the NCAA's news release and its subsequent teleconference with the media Thursday afternoon, we now know more about the new-look NCAA tournament than we did even 24 hours ago: How many teams it will have, where the games will be shown, and what direction the broadcasts will take in the future. There is also much we don't know, including just how impermanent the NCAA's 68-team decision will be. So let's recap: Below is a list of things we know and don't know about NCAA tournament expansion, a one-stop primer for today's big news. Onward.
What we know
How many teams will the NCAA tournament have in 2011? This is easy: 68. Or, to be fair, the NCAA tournament will almost certainly have 68 teams in 2011. Right now, that number comes from one thing: The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee's unanimous recommendation to the NCAA board of directors that the tournament expand to 68 teams. The board of directors still has to approve that measure at its meeting on April 29.
That approval is a formality at this point. The board of directors will almost certainly approve that recommendation. It would be a major plot twist if the board rejected it. The 68-team number is non-binding -- and in their new broadcast rights contract, the NCAA holds full discretion over whether the tournament would expand -- but for now, it appears 68 is our number. That barely qualifies as expansion, so those worried that a 96-team tournament would be on our doorstep soon can rest easy. For now.
Where will we be watching? CBS, TNT, TBS, and TruTV. Of course, the main reason the NCAA investigated expansion in the first place is to drive up the price of its new rights contract. The bidders came down to ESPN and a joint CBS-Turner group, which won out in the end.
How does this network split work? It's not quite as cut-and-dry as, say, ESPN and CBS' joint ownership of the rights to the Masters, but it's close. The first and second rounds of the tournament will be split between the four networks. CBS and Turner will split the Sweet 16.
Here's where it gets a little tricky: Through 2015, the Elite Eight and Final Four will be the sole province of CBS. Beginning in 2016, the Elite Eight and Final Four will be split between Turner and CBS. The two networks will trade years for the national title game -- CBS will have it one year, TBS the next. This deal lasts until 2024. Plan your viewing accordingly.
How much money is the NCAA making? Quite a bit: $10.8 billion over 14 years. That's about $776 million a year, or on average around $200 million per annum more than the NCAA was making in its old deal, an 11-year contract for $6 billion with CBS. Some questioned whether a new deal would net more than the NCAA stood to gain from the last three years of its current deal with CBS -- the last three years of its contract were three of the richest -- given the current economic climate and declining tournament ratings over the last decade. That squeamishness proved a little conservative. The NCAA ended up eclipsing that number, and easily so.
What we don't know
How many teams will the NCAA tournament have in, say, 2016? Ah, the $11 billion question. NCAA interim president Jim Isch and senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen refused to say whether the NCAA tournament would stick with this 68-team format in the years after 2011. When asked, Isch would merely say the 68-team recommendation was "for now." The NCAA has sole control over whether the tournament will expand in the future or not.
This raises the possibility that the NCAA tournament will be expanding again at some point. Cynics might even say the NCAA is softening its expansion blow in the face of widespread criticism, and they could have a point. By 2016 (the year itself isn't important, but just for argument's sake), the NCAA could have decided that a 96-team tournament is in the best interest of its member institutions and student-athletes, passing a similar recommendation and blowing the tournament out into the unwieldy mess you see here. It's possible.
But perhaps the most important part of today's news is that the NCAA managed to score a very rich deal without immediately expanding the tournament to 96 teams, and according to the heads of CBS and Turner, that deal isn't contingent on having 96 teams -- in 2011 or afterward. Clearly, 96 teams isn't a deal-breaker. If this format works well, and the NCAA has no financial incentive to expand, will it still expand? That seems possible too, but it also seems unlikely. Messing with a good thing makes sense when there are billions of dollars at stake. It makes zero sense when there aren't.
How does 68 teams work? This is one detail the NCAA will finalize after the 68-team recommendation is finalized, so we won't know for at least a few weeks. The simplest method would see the NCAA create four more play-in games, similar to the current play-in game, involving non-BCS schools playing for a chance to square off against the No. 1 seed in each region. Simple doesn't always mean ideal, though, and it would figure that the NCAA and its partners at CBS and Turner would prefer that the pool of expanded teams include big schools like Illinois, one of this year's last four out. One possibility is that the eight final at-large inclusions play four play-in games for the four No. 12 seeds. It's a bit of a non-traditional change, but compared to a 96-team tournament, it's decidedly small potatoes.
Will Gus Johnson call a game with Conan O'Brien? Now that CBS and Turner have united to bring us a college basketball tournament that we can actually recognize and enjoy, only one thing could make this news better: Coco and Gus on a first-round 4 vs. 13 call. Start your Internet campaigns now.