Breathe easy, college basketball fans, as the NCAA announced today that there will indeed be a new television deal and tournament expansion. However, expansion won't happen in the way many feared, at least for a few years.
CBS and Turner will, as expected, be the television home for the Tournament for the foreseeable future. This means that every game will be nationally televised, with no special pay-per-view package required. The only potential downside to this deal is that the Final Four (and half of the regional finals) move to cable in a few years.
That, and you'll have to figure out where TruTV (which oddly enough, used to be known as Court TV) is on your channel lineup.
As for expansion, 68 looks to be the likely number for the start of the contract, though the NCAA was careful to say that 96 could happen at some point during the life of the 14-year pact (which is a fairly long term as these things go). I'll have more about this limited expansion after the jump.
I can live with 68. (I blogged about this format last summer, offering up two different proposals.) The NCAA appears to be intent on harming the mid-majors with their choice of format, however. It's likely that the three extra Opening Round games will be like the current one. So, all four top seeds will play a play-in winner.
Now, if the whole purpose of expansion is money and ratings, putting eight automatic qualifiers in the Opening Round doesn't make a lot of sense. It seems to me that four games featuring bubble teams would attract more of an audience than four games featuring teams that only alums and mid-major fans like myself have heard of. But what do I know?
Let's do a little bit of a comparison using this season's field.
16-seed Opening Round
Lehigh vs. UC Santa Barbara
Arkansas-Pine Bluff vs. Winthrop
East Tennessee State vs. Morgan State
Vermont vs. North Texas
Bubble Team Opening Round
Utah State vs. Arizona State
UTEP vs. Virginia Tech
Minnesota vs. Mississippi State
Florida vs. Illinois
To me, it seems obvious as to which set of games is going to attract more viewers (and butts in the seats at the arenas, which also looked to be an issue this year).
Since logistics and format hasn't totally been sorted out yet, there's still hope that four games involving bubble teams will be the final decision.
However, since the NCAA made one smart choice on this matter doesn't mean they'll make another. Don't hold your breath.