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Sports Business

March Madness expansion looking like a go for 2011

March 31, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

The pendulum of support is swinging and the idea of expanding the men's NCAA basketball tournament from 65 to 96 teams is now gaining support from Big Ten conference and school officials.

Big Ten officials today confirmed to IBJ that expansion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to 96 teams next year is highly likely.

As first reported in the IBJ in December, the NCAA is contemplating expanding its annual men’s basketball tournament from the current three-week, 65-team format to one featuring an added week and another 31 teams.

“We’re entering a window where it makes sense to evaluate all of our assets, all of our events,” said Greg Shaheen, NCAA senior vice president of basketball and business strategies.

Proponents of the plan say it will generate a bigger television rights-fee deal for the not-for-profit NCAA, which disperses 95 percent of that to member institutions.

The NCAA, based in Indianapolis, also is studying shifting some tournament games from network to cable TV, and broadcast industry experts expect the bidding war to be intense if it’s opened up.

But opponents—including some athletic directors—fear it could dilute the product and diminish the meaning of the regular-season and conference tournaments.

The prevailing consensus on tournament expansion may be shifting, according to sources within the Big Ten, who said a number of conference athletic directors and university presidents are “warming to the idea.” And quite frankly, sources within the Big Ten admitted, much of that has to do with the thought that an expanded tournament will bring a bigger pay day.

Money isn’t the only factor, insisted Shaheen.

“Many of the advocates talk about how the membership has grown significantly over the years and how an expansion could accommodate more schools,” Shaheen said. He noted that there were 280 Division I NCAA schools in 1985, when the tournament expanded from 53 teams to 64. Now, there are 343 member schools. “To an extent, it’s a matter of supply and demand,” Shaheen said.

It’s still not clear what impact an expanded tournament would have on the regular season or conference tournaments. It also isn’t clear what will happen to the NCAA-owned 32-team National Invitation Tournament.

Thoughts of expanding the tournament are heating up as a unilateral opt-out clause for the NCAA with its current TV partner, CBS, approaches. The NCAA signed an 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS to air the tournament in 1999. The deal runs from 2003 through 2013, but the NCAA can end it after the 2010 tournament

Broadcast industry executives said they were contacted late last fall by NCAA officials to gauge their interest in bidding for an expanded tournament.
The men’s tournament—called March Madness—accounts for more than 90 percent of the NCAA’s revenue and is responsible for funding many other NCAA sports tournaments, events and initiatives.

The NCAA board will address the matter when it meets April 29 in Indianapolis.

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