The last time the NCAA seriously considered expanding the men’s Division I basketball tournament a plan emerged to add 16 more games and 32 more participants to grow that symmetrically satisfying 64-team bracket.
The backlash that followed from college sports administrators back in 2010 was strong enough to scrap the idea. A modest expansion to 68 teams was approved in 2011.
“At the end of the day, membership sentiment was that they were not unified in wanting to expand the tournament beyond 68,” recalled Greg Shaheen, the former NCAA vice president for championships.
For the first time in more than a decade, NCAA and college sports leaders are committed to a serious examination of increasing the number of teams allowed to compete in an event that has become one of the crown jewels of American sports.
The mere suggestion of messing with March Madness, which generates hundreds of millions in revenue annually for the NCAA and its 1,100 member schools, is still met with skepticism by a lot of basketball fans and some within college sports.
Making significant changes in the near term will be difficult, if not impossible. There are logistical, financial and even political obstacles.
“That’s not to say we won’t give it it’s appropriate level of analysis and consideration, but there’s a lot of factors to be considered,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president for basketball.
Chatter about tournament expansion started more than a year ago, when the NCAA assembled a committee to look into the how Division I, the highest level of college sports, operates.
After more than a year of work, the committee’s final recommendations included expanding fields for all NCAA championship — not just basketball —- with a high level of participation to accommodate 25% of competing schools.
The 25% recommendation is just that. Whether it is implemented will be a decision made on a sport-by-sport basis. Committee co-chair Greg Sankey, the Southeastern Conference commissioner, has tried to avoid being seen as pushing for expansion while also pointing out some of the reasons to do so.
“You have teams that have been the 11-seed in the First Four, make it to the Final Four, the Elite Eight, the Sweet 16,” Sankey said in January. “We’re excluding highly competitive teams, because of the structure. Now what does that expansion or those opportunities look like? I have ideas, but I’m not going to throw them out now since I don’t want to make headlines.”
Current selection protocols provide an automatic berth to the champions of all 32 Division I conferences, plus 36 at-large bids. Those are mostly scooped up by the six strongest and richest conferences: the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern.
The Big Six secured 31 of 36 at-large bids on Sunday.
Along with prestige and opportunities to advance, bids have monetary value. The NCAA distributes revenue to conferences based on tournament performance, with conferences earning a unit for each round one of its teams advances.
In 2023, a basketball unit will be worth approximately $2.04 million over the six-year period in which it is paid out. So if you’re the SEC or Big Ten, each with eight teams in the tourney, seeing all of them advance a round means more than $16 million.
Coaches, whose job security often depends on making the tournament, have typically supported a bigger field.
“Since I coached at Valparaiso University I always was in favor of tournament expansion, because I thought there’s enough quality teams,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.
Drew’s magic number is 128, which would add another full round to the tournament and include more than one-third of the 358 Division I basketball teams.
Tom Burnett, the former Southland Conference commissioner who also served a stint as the head of the men’s basketball selection committee, said he was open-minded but cautious when the topic of tournament expansion would come up.
“If there were a practical expansion plan that addressed whatever needs to be addressed — except here’s where I draw the line: It can’t expand because my team didn’t get in,” Burnett said. There will always be teams that feel slighted if they don’t get in.
There is some concern outside the power conferences that expansion will result in even more at-large bids going to middle-of-the-pack teams from those leagues with strong mid-major teams still getting squeezed out.
“If you’ve got a seventh- or eighth-place team in over a regular-season champion in a conference, from our perspective, that’s not the way to expand,” said Northern Arizona athletic director Mike Marlow, whose team made an unlikely run to the Big Sky Tournament championship game before losing.
If the Lumberjacks (12-23) had beaten Montana State (25-9) to win the conference, the Bobcats — with 13 more wins than NAU — would be heading to the NIT instead of a first-round NCAA game against Kansas State on Friday.
A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said she’s not concerned about expansion favoring certain conferences.
“I think that everybody has a fair opportunity to share in those additional opportunities. You just have to go after it, just like teams and schools are going after it now,” McGlade said.
McGlade stopped short of saying she supports expansion, but she enthusiastically supports doing a deep dive into the possibility.
Others are open-minded, but will enter the discussion more tentatively.
“Let’s be careful because it’s really, really good right now,” Mountain West Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “So make sure whatever we do is additive, and not just doing something for the sake of expansion that might somehow take the tournament a step back.”
The calendar alone is likely to limit expansion options. Any plan that requires the NCAA Tournament to start earlier than it already does —- the First Four games tip-off Tuesday —- would also require conference tournaments to end sooner and maybe even the regular season.
“We already start the regular season in early November where historically some conferences have said it’s too early with all that’s going on with college football and the like,” Gavitt said.
Any expansion of the men’s tournament will almost certainly need to be done to the women’s tournament, too. The NCAA was slammed in 2021 for not providing a similar experience for the men’s and women’s teams. An independent review concluded the association had not done enough to invest and promote the women’s tournament.
The women’s field expanded from 64 to 68 last year. While the depth of competition in women’s basketball has unquestionably improved, has it done so enough to justify a large and costly expansion?
But the same thing can be said for the men’s tournament. More teams adds expenses for travel, lodging and possibly running additional sites.
Plus, it would almost certainly decrease the value of those performance units, money that is is often the main revenue source for mid-major conferences that don’t play major college football.
“Cutting that by 10 or 11%, or whatever the different calculation could be, that’s actually really important. And it’s vital to the stability of Division I,” Shaheen said.
When Shaheen led the last expansion effort, the NCAA was heading toward the end of a media rights deal with CBS. A new format was part of negotiations for the next deal.
That’s not the case now. The current $8.8 billion contract with CBS and Warner Bros. Discovery, part of an extension the NCAA signed in 2016, runs through 2032.
“What role would broadcast partners play?” Gavitt said. “We don’t do anything without respect and communication with our broadcast partners, who we value significantly.”
While CBS and WBD will not publicly insert themselves into any exploration of tournament expansion, their opinions are key and they hold the rights to any men’s tournament games for nine more years. The NCAA cannot seek another partner for newly created games.
Contracts between the NCAA and the networks are not made public. But if the networks are under no obligation to pay up for more inventory — and nothing indicates they are —- then all this expansion talk might be nothing more than preparation of the next TV deal.
“It’s a complicated thing,” Shaheen said.