Rejoice: The NCAA Tournament As We Know It Is Unlikely to ChangePosted by Chris Johnson on July 30th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Nothing means more to college basketball fans than the NCAA Tournament. It is hallowed territory. The one three-week period of the year where college basketball dominates the national sports conversation. The best postseason of any sport in any country on any planet in any universe. Even pretentious NBA fans who typically spurn the college game for 11 months of the year – besides the sliver of college action they forcibly consume on YouTube clips leading up to the draft – usually tune in when March rolls along. As far as sports competitions go, there’s nothing better. So when talks of a new NCAA division surfaced across various football media days over the past couple of weeks, and the Tournament’s existing structure was thrown into the transformative discourse (right along with stipends and recruiting rules and bowl games and, ugh, yuck), it was fair to ask the question: Is the NCAA Tournament going to change? The short answer: probably not. I know, I know — I’m just as relieved as you are.
There’s also little chance for significant change to the NCAA tournament. The one thing the NCAA does well is run championships, and unwinding the $10.8 billion CBS-Turner deal would be thorny. The most likely change will be in the NCAA governance structure, and while that isn’t particularly sexy, it’s still significant.
Those words come from Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel’s column last week, and while one informed column doesn’t close the door on Tournament revision completely, at the very least it allows us to move through this period of NCAA tumult with the confidence that our sacred postseason ball is mostly immune to the doomsday transformation that crept into our minds when initial reports surfaced. The existential fears of bracket change will never subside – and not just because of the oncoming changes within the NCAA’s divisional structure. The fears of a 96-team field, particularly with the possibility of athletes earning a cut of the NCAA’s television revenues through the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, will linger. But at least in the short term, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t appear to be changing. This is good news.
The biggest changes to the NCAA will affect how divisions are governed. A hypothetical “Division 4” or “super division” will abide by different rules, regulations and financial provisions (a stipend closing the gap between grant-in-aid scholarships and the actual cost of living, for example) than other leagues. Smaller leagues will still play games against those included in the new power division; the difference is, those smaller leagues, and the teams and athletes contained within, will have a different rulebook to follow. Whereas the new division could offer its athletes financial benefits beyond the room-and-board scholarship amateurism currently allows, the old guard might be stuck handing out grant-in-aids, and nothing more.
This won’t change the magical plucky upset suspense of the NCAA Tournament; the structure and format – unless, again, the NCAA decides to recoup some of the revenues that could be relinquished to athletes in the O’Bannon trial by expanding the field – should remain close to, if not exactly the same. But it does, even if not explicitly, widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” which could erode some of the parity and general early-round competitiveness we’ve grown used to in March play. When one division of schools is able to offer its student-athletes multi-thousand dollar stipends the other division can’t afford, most prospective high school basketball players (particularly those of underprivileged backgrounds), if given the choice, are going to make a sensible, fiscally prudent decision. This was an inevitable part of conference realignment – expanding the gulf between big-money athletic departments and smaller budget-strapped schools, and it applies not just to college basketball or the NCAA Tournament specifically, but Division I athletics more broadly. It’s not clear which schools will be included in the new division, but the initial fears of a Big 5-only separation seem misguided. More from Thamel:
Along with the Big 5, a majority of the other major football-playing leagues would likely go with them — Mountain West, American Athletic, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC. The top basketball leagues like the Big East, Atlantic-10 and perhaps the WCC would go as well. The Ivy League and Patriot League will be talked about, too.
Other smaller leagues (such as the Summit, the Horizon, the Northeast, etc.), to reiterate, will still have access to the NCAA Tournament. That won’t change. The Florida Gulf Coasts of the world will still be invited to the dance, provided they win their conference tournament. How well those excluded teams are able to compete with their power division brethren is a different matter entirely. The divide between small-league schools and massive football-playing monoliths was already massive. Now it’s only going to grow, and that could further tilt the competitive balance of the NCAA Tournament towards more-monied schools. Does that mean fewer upsets? Possibly. Maybe. I don’t know? It’s tough to say. This much we do know: the NCAA Tournament’s structure isn’t likely to change, and man, is that refreshing news.