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NCAA Tournament Expansion Talk Ignores Elephant in Room

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Editor’s Note: We are excited to announce the Spring ’24 Sports and Media Huddle, a gathering of 100 of the industry’s most influential decision-makers, will take place in New York City on April 18. Steve Greenberg (managing director, Allen & Co), K. Don Cornwell (co-founder and CEO, Dynasty Equity), and Nakisa Bidarian (founder, Most Valuable Promotions) will all be doing closed-door fireside chats at the event. Invites will be going out in the days ahead. Big thanks for our partners, Hot Paper Lantern and Pro League Network, for sponsoring the idea sharing/networking session.

NCAA Tournament Expansion Talk Ignores Elephant in Room

The College Football Playoff (CFP) and ESPN have agreed to a new six-year deal worth $1.3 billion/year. The nine FBS conference commissioners, along with Notre Dame leadership, agreed on a revamped revenue distribution plan prior to signing the media rights pact for the sport’s soon-to-be expanded playoff.

College basketball insiders anticipate expansion of their sport’s postseason tournament coming too. NCAA president Charlie Baker and the NCAA Tournament Committee are reportedly discussing the merits of 76-team field (up from the current 68). The details of how it might work remain unclear. 

“The first step is deciding on if it should expand,” Brett Yormark (commissioner, Big 12 Conference) said. 

But once a determination is made on the tournament’s makeup, leadership will have to turn its attention to the elephant in the room. The CFP gives its most valuable member conferences outsized influence and revenues. Why don’t the power basketball conferences enjoy the same benefits?

“Down the road, in the spirit of fairness, we should take an overall look [at March Madness] beyond its composition,” Yormark said. “Is it working, and are there other areas that we should address to ensure things are where they need to be for the future?”

Remember, talk that the most powerful conferences could start their own postseason basketball tournament is driving the expansion conversation to begin with.


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The Big 12 commissioner did not express a strong preference one way or the other on expansion. 

“I’m open to what’s best for the fans, and what maintains the integrity of the tournament,” Yormark said. 

The data suggests his conference, along with the other power conferences, would benefit the most from expanding to 76 teams (in terms of additional bids).

“The schools performing at the highest levels should receive more of the at-large opportunities,” Yormark said. 

But once that decision is made Baker and Co. will need to address access, representation, and distributions. And Yormark expects the Big 12 to have an outsized voice in those discussions.

It was the top basketball conference by just about every metric this year (see: NET rating, KenPom), and has been in NET rating eight of the last nine completed seasons.

“Those that create meaningful value should have a meaningful say. That’s the world we live in,” Yormark said. 

And the Big 12 is only going to get stronger next year with the addition of perennial power, and the West Region’s number two seed, the University of Arizona Wildcats. Colorado, another tournament team, is joining too.

The CFP used the conferences’ historical contributions on the field, their member institutions’ television ratings, and existing multimedia rights deals as the guiding principles for its revamped model, and chose to award the largest shares to those bringing the most value to football’s postseason (or at least who have traditionally). 

Why shouldn’t NCAA do the same with its basketball tournament? 

As it stands, NCAA Tournament units are distributed equally. Each conference is awarded one unit (or share of TV revenues), worth ~$2mm, for each game one of its institutions participates in before the championship.

But it’s hard to make the case Grand Canyon, McNeese, or Samford units should be worth the same as those earned by Arizona and Kansas. They’re not the ones driving TV viewership, and in turn revenue for the networks and Tournament.

There has been little support for tournament expansion, historically. The networks are not obligated to pay any additional fees until/unless it reaches 96 teams, and the most powerful programs have balked at the idea of taking smaller units. 

The NCAA’s existing deal with CBS and Turner Sports runs through ’32. However, Baker seems to believe there is an opportunity to extrapolate some additional revenue for the rights now, regardless of how far expansion goes. The networks no longer want/value the additional inventory.

“There’s only a certain number of windows that they can entertain, and [the tournament] needs to fit within a 3+ week period,” Yormark said. “You go to 90+ [teams] and it changes that dynamic considerably.”

Adding basketball units of increasing worth could help the Big 12 (and others, like the ACC and Big East) begin to reduce the financial gap with B1G and SEC. That line of thinking may spur further realignment.

“If there are opportunities for [us] to grow the conference and create meaningful value, [we’re] going to pursue it,” Yormark said.

But the Big 12 believes it can also do a better job of monetizing what it is already in place, further helping to keep its schools competitive.

“We just launched a PSL program [at the men’s conference tournament] in Kansas City which is going to drive an additional $30mm of upside minimum,” Yormark said. “There are [short-term] opportunities to grow sponsorship revenues given our place in college basketball [too].”

Longer-term the league believes it will be able to extract more value from its media rights. 

“Not to say we’re going to do it, but we have the opportunity to bifurcate basketball from football in our next TV cycle,” Yormark said. “That certainly provides optionality for us.”

The Big 12 re-enters the marketplace in January of 2030. 

By the time it does, the NCAA Tournament model will likely look much different–at least, if the Big 12 has its way.

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