It’s almost that time of the year again ; the NCAA basketball tournament better known as March Madness. Any day now , 65 teams will be issued their invitations to the Big Show while the best of the rest will head off to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). For true basketball aficionados , March Madness is an eagerly awaited climax to the season, a welcome antidote to pro basketball. It is refreshing to see the enthusiasm of the college kids, the crowds, the cheerleaders, the rah-rah atmosphere. . More than in pro basketball, there is an air of uncertainty about the contests and upsets are always on the cards.And , of course, interest is heightened if one is participating in the office pool
The NCAA has done a great job of marketing the tournament so far and the popularity of Marc h Madness has increased year by year. That is why it is so disquieting to hear that the organization is thinking of increasing the tournament field from the the current 65 to perhaps 96 teams. It would be a bad move , a cynical one. No matter what the reasons it puts forth, such a move would be motivated by purely pecuniary considerations ( read ” greed“) and the hell with the integrity of the tournament or the effect on student athletes.
Perhaps a little historical background would be appropriate.
The NCAA tournament was started in 1939, one year after the NIT and for a twenty years or more the latter was the more prestigious tournament. The NIT was synonymous with the national championship and , since it was played in New York’s Madison Square garden , it attacted the better teams. Beginning in the late fifties, the NCAA tournament displaced the NIT as it became the tournament that decided the official National Champion. Partly to run the NIT out of business, the NCAA field was expanded from 8 to 16 to 24 to 32 to 48 to 64. The chosen teams included all the tourney champions as well as several others who were given at-large bids. When a new conference , the Mountain West, was created the NCAA slotted in an additional team in 2001 rather than reduce the number of at-large bids. Thus there came to be 65 bids, with the # 65 team playing # 64 for a place in the main draw. As the NCAA increased in size and popularity, the NIT saw it’s fortunes diminish and was finally bought out by the NCAA in 2007 to settle a court case. Today, it is strictly a second rate tournament with none of the glamor of it’s glory years.
One comedian has remarked that expanding the field to 96 would be bad because it would be impossible to fit all the teams on a single sheet of paper for the office pool.He’s joking of course.My main beef with the proposed expansion is that it dilutes the quality of the competition. Even at it’s present strength of 65 contenders, there are several teams that do not belong , which have no earthly hope of making it past the first round. Sports fans are familiar with the format of the tournament with teams being divided into four groups of 16 each ,one for each geographical region. Within each region , teams are seeded from # 1 thru #16 with the #1 playing # 16, #2 playing #15 and so on. According to statistics, a # 16 seed has never beaten a # 1 seed. Never. Also, a # 15 seed has beaten a #2 seed only 4 % of the time; a #14 seed has beaten a #3 seed only 15% of the time. I am all for David vs. Goliath stories but what this tells me is that some teams just do not belong in March Madness. To expand the field even further is sheer madness.
Expansion would extend the tournament by an extra week and make even more demands on student athletes. As it is presently constituted , games are played Thursday through Sunday and the field is consequently halved after each round. The tournament is thus played over three weekswith the final being on a Monday night. True, only four teams will be playing by the third weekend but that is still a lot of time away from studies. Cynics will say that the ” student-athletes” are just marking time in college until they can become pros and that most of them will not graduate anyway but that is not the point. Should we be emphasizing sports that much ? What after all is the purpose of college?
Currently, the NCAA is in the midst of a 11 year , $ 6 billion contract with CBS for the TV rights. That’s right, $ 6 billion. It also makes additional billions from merchandizing March Madness. It is considering exercising an opt-out clause in the contract so that it can re-negotiate and make even more money. Well, that’s it’s prerogative but expanding the field for the sole purpose of raking in even more moolah is despicable.
Ideally, the NCAA should drop the 65th team even if it means reducing the number of at large bids to 64. I know that is not going to happen so at least they could leave at it’s present strength of 65.The expansion proposal has attracted a lot of unfavorable comment and I am heartened to read that a senior VP of the NCAA has said that no decision has been made as yet. Let’s hope that wiser heads will prevail and that they don’t tinker with success.