Is expansion really a good business move?

April, 2, 2010
4/02/10
11:28
AM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- A day after the NCAA made a hash of its first major discussion of the possibility of an expanded tournament field, a consensus has solidified: The NCAA wants more money. If that means sacrificing the glorious, uber-popular current tournament format, fine. If that means making students miss an extra week of school, well, OK. The NCAA sees a money tree waiting to be picked, and little sad concerns like "not doing something your fans almost universally detest" and "not seeming hypocritical about 'student-athletes'" aren't going to be enough to derail a value-added business deal.

But there's actually an argument -- made most eloquently this morning by the The Trentonian's Ben Doody -- that expanding the tournament could be an objectively bad business move. If expanding the tournament decreases the intrigue of the first round, ratings could plummet; meanwhile, the regular season and mid-major conference tournaments could become less important, and thus less profitable:

College basketball’s regular season is already under siege from critics for having little significance. If a team like North Carolina can have its most disappointing season in decades and STILL make the NCAA tournament, critics will rightly argue that at least as it pertains to successful teams from power conferences, what goes on between November and February will be a string of exhibition games.

It’s easy to envision a scenario in which regular-season TV ratings go down and conferences are eventually forced to settle for less lucrative contracts as a result. Then there are conference tournaments. Those held by the power conferences already have little meaning, but those held by mid-majors have both meaning and financial value. A league like the MAAC, for instance makes a comparative killing on its tournament.

There you go, NCAA. It's a long term business-related argument against expanding the NCAA tournament. It probably won't be enough for you to turn down the extra cash (which, it should be mentioned, doesn't go into some secret NCAA coffer; much of it goes to member institutions, which is a generally noble goal) but hey, at least give it some thought.

In the end, whether or not expansion is eventually seen as a success will depend on one major outcome: Whether people watch the new first-round games. And I don't mean you, the college basketball sports blog reader, or me, the college basketball sports blogger. I mean the casual fan: The guy who fills out a few brackets every year but doesn't really freak out about it. The group that sneaks out of the cube farm and heads down to the local bar at lunchtime on Thursday because it looks like Villanova is going to get upset by a No. 15-seed. Dolores, the woman who keeps photos of her cats on her desk. Will those people watch? Or will the NIT-level play on hand -- and the less immediately shocking nature of potential first-round upsets -- turn them away, souring them on the tournament in general? Whether we eventually view expansion as a disaster (from both a financial and entertainment standpoint) or as another worthy step in the tournament's long evolution will depend entirely on this new first round.

I have my doubts. You?

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