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Spreading the Wealth: The Conferences and 2009 Exempt Events

You may remember the bad old days.  You know, the long forgotten days of the early 21st century. The time when the NCAA, in an ill-fated attempt to get more teams involved in early season events, implemented the "two-in-four" rule.  In this dark age, teams were limited to participating in only two multi-team events in a four-year period. (Unless, of course, they had previous contracts.  Then they could compete in three in a four-year period.) 

Tournament promoters, wanting to stay in business, naturally fought this in court and won.  In this Andy Katz story from before the 2003-04 season, there's a telling statistic about how the rule impacted the number of events.

"Last season was the turning point," said Bill Markovits, attorney for the plaintiffs. "The judge was looking to see what would happen and he saw what we predicted, and that was a decrease in output and quality of events."

Markovits said the NCAA certified 28 exempted events for the 2002-03 season, but only 17 were able to go forward. The other 11 events weren't able to fill their fields with eligible teams. As a result, the number of exempt games decreased from 251 in 2001-02 to 144 last season. There were 25 exempted events in the 2001-02 season.


The reason for the decline in events is simple.  Schools with bigger fanbases (read, BCS schools) are obviously going to be the main draws for exempt events.  As much as I'd like to see more schools from non-BCS leagues in these tournaments, I do understand that if you cut down on the pool of schools that can be invited on an annual basis in half (which is what the two-in-four rule did), you will soon run out of teams that will sell seats at events.  Certain events, like the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and CBE (then Guardians) Classic, tweaked their formats to meet the rule and were able to survive.  Others weren't so lucky. 

Join me after the jump for more about how the market for exempt events is just a little bit different six years after the decision striking down the two-in-four rule and three years past the NCAA's legislated more flexible scheduling rules. 

Before we look at exempt events, here's Men's Division I basketball scheduling for Dummies.  The NCAA lets teams play 29 regular season games.  However, schools can up that number to 30 or 31 by playing in an exempt event (27 single regular season games, plus 3 or 4 in the event).

A team can play in a single exempt event each season., unless it decides to not use this exemption.  Nicholls State is actually doing this in 2009-10 to participate in both the Great Alaska Shootout and the round-robin WorldVision Basketball Classic.  

On the flip side, a team cannot participate in the same event more than once in five years.  ESPN has brilliantly set up five such events (San Juan, Charleston, Disney World, Disneyland, and Honolulu), so a team can have their five separate appearances all occur on the ESPN networks.  For example, this year's San Juan field includes three teams (George Mason, Kansas State, and Villanova) that played at Disney World in 2007.

Remember that there were only 17 exempt events in 2002-03, back in the bad old days of the two-in-four rule.  This year we have 29 exempt events. There are 20 that feature anywhere from 6 to 16 teams.  Some of these are three-game elimination tournaments, others are some sort of round-robin, while still others have games on campus sites, followed by elimination games on neutral sites. There are also 9 tournaments that feature 4 or 5 teams.  These are exclusively round-robin to get each team 3 or 4 games.

So, with 12 extra events on the schedule, there should be more opportunities for schools from both BCS schools and mid- and low-major conferences, right? 

Let's see what the numbers tell us.

There are 348 teams in Division I this year, including transitional schools.  Of these, 212 are participating in an exempt event.  That's a shade under 61 percent.  Note that the true number of participants is actually 213 because of Nicholls State double-dipping.  There's an odd number of participants because the West Coast Classic features 5 teams in its round-robin.  Four Division II schools are participating in Division I exempt events this season, with two--Alaska-Anchorage and Chaminade--hosting; however, they aren't included in this analysis.

While 61 percent is a good number, there isn't a ton of equality between the different levels of schools in Division I.

Let's start by looking at the 73 teams in the six BCS conferences.  A staggering 94.5 percent of these (69) are going to participate in an exempt event this season.  The only four who won't are the ACC's Wake Forest, Georgetown and Seton Hall from the Big East, and Georgia from the SEC.  None of the 69 schools are in an event where they haven't been selected to participate in the marquee matchups at the final site.  Additionally, only five BCS schools--OregonOregon State, Providence, Texas TechWashington--are in round-robin events.  The Beavers are the only BCS team who will play in a round-robin event that they aren't hosting.

Next, we'll look at the non-BCS conferences.  In terms of grouping these leagues, I've divided them into two tiers.  The first tier includes 11 conferences who have dstinguished themselves in the NCAA tournament over the past few years either through obtaining multiple bids or the performance of individual teams.  These conferences are the A-10, CAA, C-USA, Horizon, MAAC, MVC, MWC, Southern, Sun Belt, WAC, and West Coast.  There are 110 teams in these 11 leagues and 71 of them (64.5%) will participate in exempt events this year. 

21 of these 110 teams will take part in tournaments where they're expected to be easy wins for the power conference schools (and not feature in the marquee matchups at the final site--with the exception being the NIT Season Tip-Off).  Duquesne, among the preseason favorites in the Atlantic 10, is the most noteworthy of this group.  They're participating in the CBE Classic, where they won't have a chance to win the title, even if they win at Iowa in the tournament's early rounds.

Of these 11 conferences, the Mountain West did the best in terms of getting its teams into exempt events.  Eight of the nine MWC members will participate in one, with Air Force being the only exception.  Other noteworthy teams from these conferences who won't participate in an exempt event this season include New Mexico State, Southern Illinois, UTEP, and VCU.

The 14  15 remaining conferences (need to include the new Great "West") and independents form the third group-- the one least attractive to organizers.  These are leagues that--more often than not--don't win games in the NCAA Tournament.  There are 156 teams in these leagues and only about 43 percent of them (67) will participate in exempt events this season.  A bit more than half of these 67, 39 in fact, will not be able to participate in the marquee games in their events (except for the NIT again).  A further 19 of the 67 will participate in a round-robin event.  That means only 9 of the 67 participants from this level are in an event where they have a legitimate chance at winning the title.  Those lucky schools are Boston University, Brown, Howard, IUPUI, Long Beach State, Nicholls State, South Dakota State, and Western MIchigan--though in the case of the Brown Bears, the strange Philly Hoop Group format may limit their actual chance for the trophy.

In closing, the fact there are only a handful of power conference schools not participating in an event this season means that we've probably reached a saturation point in terms of exempt events.  Since organizers are likely to invite at least four name schools to an eight-team event, there's probably only room on the schedule for one, perhaps two more such tournaments.  And when you consider how congested sports television is during late November, there may not be the broadcast opportunities needed to make such an event profitable.

I guess we college hoops fans will have to be satisfied with 29 exempt events and not 30 or 31.

Now that I've talked numbers, I'll be back during the weekend with a more in-depth look at this year's major exempt tournaments.