Soon, if reports that the NCAA will expand its men’s basketball tournament field from 65 to 96 teams come true.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney said this week it’s “probable” the expansion will take place in conjunction with the NCAA’s option to get out of the final three years of its TV contract for the NCAA tournament with CBS in order to seek a new, more lucrative deal.
Expanding the field adds more “product,” more games to be televised that presumably would provide the NCAA more negotiating power as it seeks to make its current multi-billion dollar TV contract even more valuable on the open market.
But what does such expansion add for the fans?
That’s just a secondary issue to the NCAA, but the answer is it adds very little save for one more round of games to watch and 31 more teams with no chance to win the national title.
Instead of having the top seven teams from the Big Ten, ACC, Big East, SEC and Big 12 in the Big Dance, we’ll be able to see even more also-rans from those elite leagues add to their conferences’ coffers by being added to this money machine.
And all that does is separate the haves from wannabes even more, as the power conferences get an even larger share of the TV revenue while smaller leagues still settle for their one- and-done checks.
Smaller conferences can hope a stipulation might be made that regular-season champions that do not win their postseason tournaments are extended bids to the NCAA tourney as part of determining the 31 additional teams.
But take this year, for example. What’s a more attractive option from the teams that failed to make the top 65 and were relegated to the NIT, America East regular-season champion Stony Brook or defending national champion North Carolina?
And which of those teams would a TV network prefer to have on its airwaves? Sorry Seawolves.
My preferred outcome of such expansion from a competitive perspective would be to create a Division I-AA tournament of sorts that could crown its own national champion from the mid-major ranks.
The I-AA feel already exists, given that rare is the mid-major that truly establishes itself in the big leagues for more than a year or two.
A mid-major is left to add to its financial well-being by playing road games against power conference teams in exchange for guaranteed payments from the power teams’ revenue stream — perhaps even coming out of their NCAA TV money.
The University of Maine has benefited from that option in recent years. This winter, the Black Bears took in more than $300,000 for playing road games at Syracuse, Connecticut, Boston College and Fordham.
A similar scenario is true for the Black Bears’ football program, which now plays at least one Bowl Championship Series team on the road each year for a healthy guarantee. Maine made $450,000 for playing at Syracuse last fall.
As it stands, the University of Maine football program can legitimately compete for a national title as a I-AA (Football Championship Subdivision) program. The basketball team, while technically eligible, realistically cannot.
Adding a mid-major national championship tournament in basketball with 32 teams would make that possible, and truly would bring 96 Division I teams into March Madness.
But the NCAA’s rumored plan, which will be considered April 29, is not about possibilities — it’s all about product.