The debate over whether the NCAA tournament should expand beyond its current format of 68 teams is a nuanced and multifaceted discussion. The expansion of the tournament could bring both benefits and challenges to college basketball and the overall viewing experience. On the one hand, the chance of an unheard of team making a run to the sweet 16 or the elite 8 is great for eyeballs and engagement and news articles. On the other hand, this phenomena risks catching a good team on an off night and crushing their Final Four dreams by some no-name squad that will fizzle out in a few games anyways.
The discussion can get intense, but here are some points to consider:
Expanding the tournament could provide more opportunities for teams from smaller conferences and mid-majors to participate. It is always challenging when a team from a smaller conference runs off an impressive year losing three or four games, only to find themselves playing in the first round of the NIT with no real discussion if they should have made the tournament or not because their strength of schedule was too weak. This could help promote parity and give more programs a chance to shine on a national stage. For smaller schools who have a great year amidst a run of mediocre years, expanding beyond 68 teams might be the only way for them to find their way into the madness.
A larger tournament could potentially generate more revenue for the NCAA and participating schools. Additional games would mean more TV deals, ticket sales, and advertising opportunities. The NCAA March Madness tournament is not only a thrilling display of college basketball talent but also a major revenue-generating event that impacts various stakeholders. The revenue flow of March Madness involves a complex interplay of broadcasting rights, sponsorships, ticket sales, and more. Here's an overview of how the revenue flows:
Broadcasting Rights: Television broadcasting is a primary revenue driver for the NCAA during March Madness. The NCAA negotiates broadcasting rights agreements with networks such as CBS and Turner Sports. These networks pay significant sums for the rights to air the tournament games, including the popular "Selection Sunday" show and all the games throughout the tournament. Apart from traditional broadcasting, the NCAA also earns revenue from licensing its media rights to digital platforms and streaming services. As online viewership grows, digital media rights have become an increasingly valuable asset.
Advertising and Sponsorships: Sponsorships and advertising play a pivotal role in generating revenue. Companies pay substantial amounts to be associated with the tournament through various advertising channels, including TV commercials, digital platforms, and arena signage. The NCAA's official corporate partners and sponsors contribute to this revenue stream.
Player Revenue?: As we live in a world where more and more revenue is trickling down to the players, love it or hate it, an increase in revenue for the tournament could find its way into the players that generate that revenue or at minimum increased scholarship opportunities at some point in the future. This is a wildly debated topic with strong opinions on both side, but expanding the tournament might just eventually lead to increasing player compensation.
Ticket & Merch Sales: Ticket sales for the tournament's games, from the early rounds to the Final Four, contribute significantly to the NCAA's revenue. Fans purchase tickets to attend games in person, and the demand for tickets is particularly high during the later rounds as the stakes get higher. Official merchandise, including apparel, memorabilia, and accessories, is a significant revenue source. Fans purchase items to show their support for their favorite teams and to commemorate the tournament experience.
Host City Revenue: The host cities and venues that hold tournament games also benefit economically from the influx of fans, teams, media personnel, and other visitors. Local businesses, hotels, restaurants, and transportation services experience increased revenue during the tournament's presence in their city. Adding cities would come at a cost though, with logistical challenges and marketing optimization challenges to boot. Certainly some new technologies such as AI sports picks could be used to optimize fanbases with travel locations to optimize this endeavor.
NCAA Memberships & Licensing: A portion of the revenue generated by the NCAA March Madness tournament is distributed to member institutions. These funds contribute to the overall functioning of college athletic programs, including scholarships, facilities, and other expenses. Licensing agreements with manufacturers and retailers allow them to produce official NCAA merchandise. The NCAA collects royalties from these agreements, contributing to the overall revenue.
Expanding the field could potentially lead to a dilution of the quality of teams in the tournament. The "big dance" is known for its intensity and competitiveness, and adding more teams might lower the overall level of play. This would become even more apparent on opening weekend if you had a 96th seed playing a one seed for instance. The gap in elite talent and good programs would be increasingly apparent and might create for a route that isn't engaging or entertaining to watch.
More games would require additional venues, scheduling complexities, and travel logistics. This could strain resources and potentially impact the student-athletes' experience. It's challenging enough to juggle the 68 teams that currently make it in. Adding 8 or 24 more would only add to this strain. A larger tournament would extend the duration of the tournament, which could impact the academic schedules of student-athletes and could also potentially lead to viewer fatigue.
Selection Process Challenges
Expanding the field might make the selection process more complicated. Determining the at-large bids and seeding for a larger field could be a more challenging task. This would be quite difficult in the situation where several of the teams have a very weak strength of schedule against poor division I schools and some strong division II schools; how would the selection committee even have a chance to fairly seed the bracket without using a college basketball computer picks model or algorithm to run hypothetical matchups and weight the strength of each team?
Diminished Regular Season Importance
A larger tournament could potentially reduce the significance of the regular season. Teams might feel less urgency to perform well during the regular season if a larger number of spots are available in the tournament.
Ultimately, the decision to expand the NCAA tournament should take into account the balance between inclusivity, competitiveness, logistical feasibility, and the overall experience for both student-athletes and fans. Any potential expansion should be carefully considered to preserve the essence and magic of March Madness while also addressing the challenges that come with a larger field.