One of the greatest spectacles in sports occurs every March, save for a global pandemic. College basketball takes center stage over three weeks as 68 teams get whittled down to one champion.
The odds to win March Madness are so sporadic that it makes for a lot of fun games within the games. Hundreds of thousands of brackets are filled out once the field is set. People compete in office pools, family pools, amongst friends and even strangers, some for cash and others for braggin’ rights. But the filling out of brackets allows those who fill out brackets to create greater intrigue within the actual games.
But March Madness is great for the buzzer beaters, the upsets, the Cinderella stories, and allowing little-known players to become stars. It is how some players have their careers defined.
In the era of name, image, and likeness, which allows players to profit off themselves, now those moments can bring in a lucrative income by appearing in commercials, fan events, dealerships, autograph signings, and other ways. It is another way that the game is growing closer to fans and allowing players and teams alike to become more easily recognizable.
Coaches have been calling for an expansion of teams entered into the March Madness field. Growing from 64 to 68 was a fight in and of itself. But, the event only lasts three weeks and draws so much of a television share that expanding it to a month would provide some premium content for networks.
The week of Jan. 9, the NCAA board discussed expanding to 80 or 90 teams, according to media reports. There are currently 353 NCAA Division I teams, so it would still be a fraction of teams entering the field.
But the NCAA calendar would have to be changed to accommodate the extra weeks of tournament play. Conference tournaments would have to start in February. School presidents and administrators would have to make a choice: Limit the number of conference games or non-conference games.
It is unlikely the calendar would expand to start the season earlier, and coaches would likely push back on that. The cupcake games early in the season are great for the development of players, chemistry, and implementation of a coach’s system.
Though as conferences expand, the better matchups lie within leagues. One thing that seems certain is the holiday tournaments during the week of Thanksgiving will likely remain. So will coaches want fewer cupcakes or tougher games to build a better resume?
As the calendar stands, the men’s and women’s basketball championships end leading up to the Masters. Stacking the men’s basketball finale with the Masters the following week is great for television partner CBS. It has two of the premiere finals during the yearly sports calendar in back-to-back weeks.
Delay any further and it will be a mega weekend, but the Final Four would be competing with the Masters, and CBS won’t like that. Even if the NCAA calendar is pushed back, part of the tournament will be at the same time as the Masters.
The recruiting calendar will also have to be sorted out as there is a dead period and then an ability to go out and recruit. Those implications would be something coaches would be paying attention to.
The College Football Playoff is set to expand from four teams to 12 teams in 2024. That is a much smaller percentage of the 131 Division I teams who play though. But expanding the men’s and women’s basketball events would fall in line.
The reality is there could be a lot more money involved. That is what the football counterparts found out in renegotiating television contracts with larger conferences. Estimates figure the College Football Playoffs’ new contract, which will be negotiated in advance of the 2026 season, will reach several billion – yes, with a ‘B’ – dollars. But football is king compared to basketball.
Still, there figures to be a larger rating if the tournament expands because there is greater inventory and larger programs bound to make the event.
Something to Think About …
But that doesn’t mean it will create a greater product. More teams mean more saturation and that could mean not as fun of an event for consumers.