The NCAA announced a new TV deal with CBS/TNT for the NCAA Tournament. The contract will be 14 years in length and pay out over $10 billion(yes, Billion) for the rights to broadcast March Madness. Also coming out of the announcement was the news that the NCAA intends to only expand the Tournament to 68 teams instead of 96 as was discussed at length over the past few months. While the NCAA's Greg Shaheen says the move will likely be to 68 teams, he also indicated nothing is off the table.
Obviously the announcement of a 68 team field has been met with great rejoicing from 90% of the people who give a crap about the NCAA Tournament. Speaking for myself, while I am happy we won't see NIT first round games disguise as March Madness next season, by no means do I think this is the end. In fact, I think this is only one stop on the road to a 96 team field. In other words, the NCAA is playing us.
First of all, whether by design or outright stupidity, the concept of a 96 team tournament field being made public gave the NCAA valuable insight. It basically signaled to the organization that ramming a large expansion through would be foolhardy resulting in a massive backlash from fans. So, the NCAA, not being the Congress of the United States, is opting for the incremental approach. Instead of pushing 32 more games they are simply adding three more to the already much maligned 1st round game. In 2011 we will have four games ahead of the traditional first round, one for each regional(I imagine.) There is no word yet on whether this game will pit teams 60-68 or have actual name recognition teams play for the 12th seed or something in each region. What it clear is the NCAA is expanding the tournament and no one is batting an eye over it. Instead of being pissed they are adding games, everyone is relieved. Some folks, like myself, have no problem with 68 teams but that is beside the point which is the fact there is expansion at all and no one cares.
Once you get to 68 teams and begin having these extra games ahead of the traditional first round expanding further becomes an easier task. There is something called "proof of concept" testing. We do this in the IT world. We take a small group of users, install some new software package to see if it works with our environment, work out the kinks, etc. If all that goes well then it is deployed on a larger scale. The expansion to 68 is basically a proof of concept test. The NCAA will point to the "success" of these four games ahead of the traditional first round as evidence more games is good. And since they are already there and being shown on TNT or TBS or whatever, it will make it easier to swallow when they add 28 games. The NCAA will say that these extra games proved the impact on class time was minimal plus it was fun having more games right! I also think(and this is purely opinion) that a precursor to the 96 team expansion is the NCAA will fold the NIT up and use the loss of that tournament as another reason to expand. After all it would be cruel to deny these teams a chance to play in the postseason. We have to expand! For the kids!
Of course the most basic reason why we know expansion is coming is the contract itself and the TV partners. Does anyone in their right mind really believe that CBS and TNT signed on to a 14 year deal worth almost $11 billion(yes Billion) for three extra games? No, which leads me to believe that all the talk of 96 teams was done to get a bead on public reaction. In turn, the NCAA can then negotiate with CBS/TNT with a better idea of when/how to expand to 96 teams. The bottom line is, at some point in the discussions, 96 teams was discussed and I am willing to speculate a timeline was established on when they would eventually move in that direction. The best guess is when this provision kicks in:
Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split by CBS and Turner; the Final Four and the championship game will alternate every year between CBS and TBS.
An expansion to 96 teams before that would not shock me in the least.
So for now, it appears the 96 team NCAA Tournament monstrosity has been held at bay. However, the full expansion to 96 teams is still on the table and in my opinion a sure a thing to happen as anything else.