According to reliable source, the NCAA is considering an expansion to a tournament field with 96 teams. According to a less reliable source, the NCAA's already considered it, and the change is a "done deal." Let's take these one-at-a-time. First, from John Ourand at the Sports Business Journal:
The NCAA has its sights set on expanding from a 65-team tournament to either 68 or 96 teams if it opts out of the CBS contract, according to the 12-page RFP.
A 68-team field would add three "play-in" games to the current 65-team format, and a 96-team field would expand the tournament’s inventory by 31 games. [...]
The NCAA is considering whether to opt out of its 11-year, $6 billion contract with CBS after the Final Four in April. The deal has three years and $2.131 billion remaining.
Should the NCAA opt out of that deal with CBS, they'd theoretically have the flexibility to completely revamp the structure of March Madness—a 96-team field, multiple networks airing games, games throughout the week, anything. And undoubtedly, they will wield that flexibility like a sword, fighting for every last television dollar they can get. While the NCAA Tournament is perhaps the most universally beloved sporting event of the year, it belongs not to the universe, but to a bunch of old men in Indianapolis.
To say there's a disconnect would probably be understating it. It's a relationship that's perhaps best explained by a man from Texas named Cody. During the swarm of controversy over Texas Tech's firing of Mike Leach, Cody emerged to crystallize the relationship between Tech fans and the administration. And at the same time, he accidentally nailed the relationship between the NCAA and college sports fans, in general. From Cody:
You have to remember, that they live in houses where there’s no TVs in the living rooms. There’s just big shelves of books, and they listen to NPR radio on a little transistor radio. And they drink Ensure out of a frickin’ straw. They have their food catered to them, and they get a new Cadillac every year.
They don’t live in the real world. They don’t understand what is to be a fan. They sit behind a glass partition and they sit there with their rich little smirks on their faces… So you understand how it was back in Medieval Times, with the Kings and peasants. They don’t care about us!
So keep that little rant in mind, when you read this speculation from Sports By Brooks:
An ESPN source said, "It’s a done deal with the expansion of the tournament. Depending on how soon a (TV) deal is done, the added teams could start next year. The NCAA confirmed that bidders would be interested in 96 teams, so they’re going with it."
Another ESPN source confirmed to me that the network was in the formative stages of pondering a bid for the expanded tournament.
Would the NCAA be better off with a 96-team tournament? Of course not. It's already to difficult to argue the merits of college basketball's regular season. With 96 teams, schools in the major conferences would be all but guaranteed entry into the Big Dance, and it'd undoubtedly chip away at some of the mystique inherent to the experience. That, and the greatest virtue of March Madness is the egalitarian elements of bracket play; powerhouse programs have to face mid-major teams, and justice is served out on the court. With 96 teams, that'd be gone, too.
Top seeds would get a bye in the first round, and mid-majors would likely fight amongst themselves in the first round, wiping out half of the would-be challengers to college basketball's blue bloods.
What are the positives, then? More money for the NCAA, it's assumed. And even though the NCAA totally, completely, in-no-way-shape-or-form condones gambiling, it'd certainly generate a ton of interest from Las Vegas, and gamblers across the country, eager to turn their office pools into full-on orgies of chaos. But that's it. Those are the positives. More money, and more money being gambled. So, a question for
the NCAA rational people. Do we really think the benefits outweigh the costs?