Coming To Their Senses??

By Jim Litke
Updated: April 24, 2010

NEW YORK — Scaring your customers silly might not sound like much of a business strategy.

But this time it worked out fine for the NCAA. Either the people at the top of the organization were just lucky, or they are a lot smarter than they like to let on.

For weeks, they’ve been warning college basketball fans that a changing economic landscape could force an expansion of the NCAA tournament field from 65 teams to 96.

Senior NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen devoted no less than 31 paragraphs to the topic in a statement ahead of the organization’s annual news conference kicking off Final Four weekend.

He said the Division I men’s basketball committee had looked at “dozens of models” for the tournament, but narrowed the choice to three: keep the status quo; expand the field to 68 teams; or 96.

He then talked up the 96-team model for the rest of his allotted time and spent nearly every remaining breath defending it during the question-and-answer session that followed.

Everyone left thinking it was already a done deal.

So naturally, the NCAA said Thursday that it recommended a 68-team model instead as part of a new $10.8 billion, 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting.

Under the contract, the organization’s TV partners get no say on how many teams are in the field, but the NCAA Division I board of directors still have to vote on the recommendation next week.

Both the 68-team model and new deal got a thumbs up from just about everybody, and deservedly so. Gone are the fears that an expanded tournament would devalue the regular season or dilute the quality of the opening round.

Fans must be elated, too, if only because they won’t have to carry around brackets printed on two pages instead of one. Yet not everyone was thrilled.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, probably the most vocal advocate for expansion among coaches today.

It was Boeheim’s proposal at the National Association of Basketball Coaches meeting in 2006 that cracked open the door on expansion, although he called for adding between four and six teams at the time.

“There’s really no way to do a little bit bigger expansion. You can’t expand by eight, 10. There’s no way to figure that out. This is the easiest way,” Boeheim said Thursday, “and hopefully down the road there will be a bigger expansion.”

It’s very likely, given the way the debate ended this time around.

The reason the 96-team model was still in play as late as the Final Four is simple. When the NCAA began seriously considering the expansion question two years ago, it canvassed nearly 300 people at various schools — administrators, athletic directors and conference officials — and found an overwhelming majority in favor.

Then the organization narrowed the questions to how many teams, and when.

The NCAA’s previous deal with CBS ran through 2013, but was backloaded for the final three years, increasing the annual payout from around $500 million to more than $700 million.

The organization could have stood pat, taken the big paydays and waited until the contract expired to find another network, or networks, willing to fork over that kind of money and more. What added a sense of urgency to the mission was a clause in the CBS deal enabling the NCAA to opt out on July 31.

All along, the organization wanted the flexibility to make the expansion decision independent of a new TV deal. But the people in charge also knew they wouldn’t have more leverage than during the next few months, so instead of tamping down speculation about expansion, they invited it.

The reaction was predictable enough. Much of the college basketball establishment quietly supported it — Boeheim declared it a litmus test, saying any coach who opposed expansion should be in another line of work — but fans largely panned the idea.

It would be nice to report that the NCAA listened to that groundswell and decided to keep the tournament basically intact. What happened instead is that CBS reportedly didn’t turn a profit on this year’s tournament, despite the increased attention caused by Butler’s magical run to the championship game.

As a result, the network was willing to sell off a share of the TV rights ownership to a cable partner, Turner, and the two companies came up with enough to entice the NCAA to stay in the fold. What may have sealed the deal is that the networks didn’t insist on a say in future expansion decisions.

Even so, there’s no guarantee we won’t see a 96-team field in the future.

Given the way these negotiations played out — the NCAA got the dollars it wanted, essentially without having to expand — don’t be surprised if proposals for 128 teams and more surface the next time someone decides the organization’s Indianapolis headquarters could use a makeover.