Before the first ticket to the NCAA Tournament is sold – and, eventually, a whole lot of them are exchanged for a fair amount of money – the event generates $850 million in revenue. In another three years, that figure will increase by nearly 30 percent. And that payment is guaranteed by a contract in place with CBS and Turner Sports that runs through 2032.
So what we’re talking about, at minimum, is an event guaranteed to return well more than $11 billion to the NCAA and its member institutions over the next decade.
That’s for 67 college basketball games per year, three weeks of action.
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And someone wants to fix that? Someone thinks they can improve upon near perfection? Someone wants to replace the certainty of that income with speculation?
In college basketball terms, this is like the barber who once complained to Jim Valvano about his predecessor at NC State, Norm Sloan, who went 57-1 over two seasons and won the 1974 NCAA championship, with the declaration, “Imagine what Dean Smith would have done with those teams.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins is not the first to propose the big-time programs create their own postseason championship, but he might be the smartest, which is why it was so disappointing to hear him propose such a foolish idea.
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“They’re doing it in football,” Huggins said at Big 12 media day. “Why wouldn’t they do it? The presidents and athletic directors that have all the juice – why wouldn’t they do it? Makes no sense why they wouldn’t do it. I think it’s more, ‘Why wouldn’t they?’ than ‘Why would they?’
“And then, the other people, they can have their own tournament.”
Huggins would not have been so wild about this idea when he was coaching at Akron, and possibly even Cincinnati. And come to think of it, one could argue with the coming departure of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 that even West Virginia’s hold on “power” status as a member of the Big 12 might be considered tenuous. It’s possible Huggs was arguing against his own program’s future.
That’s not me talking.
I’m not the one who created the “Power 5” distinction.
Huggins dismisses the mid- and low-major programs comprising roughly a third of the NCAA Tournament field. “Those Cinderella schools are putting 200 people, at best, in their gym,” he said. “We’re putting 14,000.” The presence of those programs, however – and potential to pull major upsets – generate a disproportionate share of the event’s appeal. That is a big part of why CBS and Turner pay so much for March Madness, and removing that “Cinderella” factor would more likely turn it back into a mere basketball tournament.
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Huggins complained college basketball does not have the sort of economic power that college football does “because we don’t generate the same kind of TV income that football does. But we don’t try to.”
What Huggins misses here is the basic math specific to football. First, there is the magic of the home game. If you’re a top power with an 80,000-seat stadium and an average ticket price of $100, you’re bringing in roughly $8 million. Playing seven home games means $56 million. To get that much from a 14,000-seat basketball arena, even at $100 per ticket, a college basketball team would have to play 40 home games. Good luck charging that price – and somehow arranging that in a 27-game regular season.
In regards to television audiences, there were 198 college football games that generated audiences of 4 million or larger between 2015 and 2019, according to research done by Andy Staples of The Athletic. In college basketball’s regular season during the same period, there were only three such games. College basketball is a popular TV sport, but its audience is split in many more directions and the inventory much more vast.
That’s why football holds the majority of the economic power in a Division I athletic program. It’s certainly not its fractured and flawed postseason. We’ve known for years that many bowl participants take a loss on their participation. The College Football Playoff has improved their lot; the Power 5 leagues all received $66 million as their share of CFP revenues.
In the 2019 NCAA Tournament, however, the top three leagues in terms of achievement (Big Ten, ACC, SEC) all got unit distributions of more than $32 million. And that’s not the only way members are compensated. The largest portion of the revenue is disbursed through the “sports sponsorship and scholarship funds”, a reward for those schools relative to the number of sports they contest on their campuses – which usually benefits the big-time schools. There’s more that goes into the student assistance fund and academic enhancement fund. The money is broken down this way because of the controversy generated years ago over the “$500,000 free throw”, when nearly all distribution was based on tournament performance and the opinion grew this was too much pressure on players.
It still, obviously, is a truckload of money going back to the most prominent programs.
If they did hold their own tournament, the power programs certainly could keep more of what is generated, but the likely collapse in popularity would mean everyone involved receiving smaller paydays.
In the past, the smart people in college athletics with whom I’ve spoken have endorsed the magic of the “automatic bids.” They understand how that inflates the value of March Madness beyond what seems likely given the relative popularity of college basketball.
The latest James Bond picture, “No Time to Die”, generated $56 million at the box office in its first week even with movie audiences depressed by the pandemic. It received 84 percent approval by film critics aggregated by Rotten Tomatoes. Those who attend Bond movies have known for six decades what will be delivered: an intriguing villain, preposterous action sequences, some dry humor and a compelling (though never permanent) romantic interest. Nobody would mess with that formula by placing Bond in a courtroom drama or rom-com.
It’s a formula that has worked for years, not just artistically but financially — just like the expanded-bracket NCAA Tournament, with automatic bids for the less prominent conferences and multiple bids and top seeds for the heavyweights.
Huggins would take a concept that works beyond all reasonable expectation and mangle it. It’d mean less fun for college basketball fans and less money for everyone. Huggins has had some remarkable moments as a college coach: frightening Michigan in the 1986 first round, punishing Michigan State in the 1992 NCAA Tournament second round, frustrating Kentucky in the 2010 Elite Eight, reaching two Final Fours. Proposing the destruction of March Madness is not Huggs at his best.