Is bigger better? NCAA again considering expanding basketball tournaments

Talk of NCAA tournament expansion is back, this time with a 90-team field up for discussion.

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Dan Gavitt says the possibility of NCAA tournament expansion hasn't been seriously explored since he became the czar of March Madness just over a decade ago.

Maybe two or three times the men's basketball committee has been asked to consider increasing the 68-team field. Each time, the committee has quickly and emphatically shot down that idea without much discussion.

"Those very infrequent times when it has been up for consideration, the conversation has been very brief," Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president for basketball, told Yahoo Sports. "I'd categorize it as 30 minutes or less. There has not been any interest from past basketball committees in even entertaining the idea of expanding."

Now comes an expansion proposal that will demand a more thorough discussion, this one with the backing of the powerful Greg Sankey and an influential group of college athletics leaders. The NCAA's transformation committee, which has been tasked with modernizing college sports and improving the student-athlete experience, recommended in January to broaden access to Division I championships by allowing more teams to participate in those events.

This month, a little less than 19% of Division I's 363 men's basketball teams and 361 women's basketball teams will participate in the NCAA tournament. The transformation committee advised the NCAA to raise that to 25% in every team sport, which would mean 90-team men's and women's basketball tournaments.

[Free bracket contests for men's & women's tourneys for shot at $25K]

While that proposal has inspired support from some corners of college basketball and outrage and hand-wringing from others, the transformation committee's recommendations won’t automatically go into effect. Each particular sport's governance groups must determine what size bracket is best for that sport. Those groups then submit a recommendation by January 2024 for implementation the following academic year.

Project what a 90-team NCAA tournament would look like this season and it’s easy to see the downside. The worst Villanova team in more than a decade would easily make that field. So would 16-win Florida and all 10 members of the Big 12 — even sub-.500 Oklahoma.

Whether that would render the regular season even more irrelevant is one factor for the men’s basketball committee to consider when it discusses potential NCAA tournament expansion later this year. The committee would also have to assess whether an extra round would mess up the pacing of the NCAA tournament and make it more difficult for Cinderellas to emerge.

And then there’s maybe the biggest component in all this: The cash.

In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports agreed to pay $10.8 billion to carry the men’s tournament for 14 years. CBS and Turner later signed an eight-year, $8.8 billion extension to continue to broadcast the tournament through 2032.

How much more money could the NCAA extract from its TV partners if it was able to offer more NCAA tournament games to air? Would that influx of TV and ticket revenue outweigh the travel expenses of sending more men’s and women’s teams to their sites? And, if so, would the short-term money be worth the risk of doing long-term damage to the primary money-maker propping up all of college athletics?

“The folks in our world can’t ignore what television partners are going to think about that,” Tom Burnett, former Southland Conference commissioner and chair of the 2022 men’s basketball committee, told Yahoo Sports. “Does it bring value? Does it help in that regard? To disrupt this close-to-perfect event, it’s got to be substantial in the benefit it delivers.”

Expanding to 68 instead of 96

The last time the NCAA seriously considered expanding the men’s tournament, it was nearing a window allowing it to opt out of its broadcast rights deal with CBS. Potential TV partners told the NCAA that its asking price was too high unless it expanded the 65-team tournament to create more games and more inventory.

On April 1, 2010, former NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen held a news conference at the Final Four and outlined a detailed plan for a tournament with 96 teams and the top 32 seeds landing byes. Shaheen insisted that nothing had yet been decided, but spent most of his time defending the supersized bracket as a good logistical and financial fit.

He dodged questions about whether a 96-team tournament would further dilute the significance of the regular season and conference tournaments. He backpedaled like a cornerback when pressed about the additional wear and tear on athletes’ bodies and the amount of class time they would miss. When asked if anyone would watch a No. 33-versus-No. 96 opening-round matchup, Shaheen insisted with a straight face, “Well, actually, there are a number of sold-out games where you have teams in the top 10 that play teams in the 300s.”

Many coaches vouched for a 96-team tournament because of the job security it would provide, but the non-coach was almost universally negative. Columnists across the country accused the NCAA of doing the equivalent of painting over the Mona Lisa or messing with Hemingway’s prose. Even Dan Gavitt’s father, former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, wrote a letter eviscerating the idea of expanding to 96 teams.

“He was not a fan,” the younger Gavitt said with a chuckle. “He didn’t think it was a prudent idea in any way.”

When CBS and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay $10.8 billion to carry the men’s tournament for the next 14 years, the NCAA bowed to the backlash and jointly announced that it would only expand to a 68-team field. Pat Forde, then of ESPN.com, wrote that “compared to the star-spangled debacle of 96, we're almost giddy at the expansion to 68.”

“It's like resigning yourself to eating an entire can of dog food, then only being handed a spoonful,” Forde added. “All things considered, pretty tasty.”

The men’s tournament has remained at 68 since 2011. The women’s tournament jumped from 65 to 68 last year. Those numbers seemed set for the time being until the NCAA transformation committee met and took a comprehensive look at how to improve the championship experience for Division I athletes.

EVANSTON, IL- MARCH 12: The Northwestern Wildcats react after being selected to play Vanderbilt during a NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament Selection Show watch party. This is the first time that Northwestern Men's Basketball team has been selected  to play in the NCAA Tournament on March 12, 2017 at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
Watch parties have become commonplace, with reactions ranging from joy — seen here when Northwestern received its first-ever bid to the tournament in 2017 — and disappointment. (David Banks/Getty Images)

How many postseason teams is appropriate?

Julie Cromer, Ohio athletic director and transformation committee co-chair, said that she and her colleagues studied a few factors before making the recommendation to increase championship field sizes. The committee discussed what ratio of eligible teams needed to participate in a postseason tournament to crown a true national champ and whether NCAA championships had expanded in proportion to the increasing number of schools transitioning to Division I.

Cromer told Yahoo Sports that the 25% threshold suggested by the transformation committee is a “philosophical guideline,” not a strict rule. She’s hopeful the governing bodies in men’s and women’s basketball and in every other sport will use it as a “starting point” to re-examine their championships and figure out what size is appropriate.

“Now we’re handing it off to the experts in those sports,” Cromer said. “The men’s and women’s basketball committees are full of really smart people who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to provide student-athletes the best experience. I’m sure whatever they determine will be the right thing moving forward.”

Whereas Cromer largely deferred to the men’s and women’s basketball committees, her fellow transformation committee co-chair has been more outspoken. Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner and one of the most powerful figures in college athletics, urged colleagues to take a “fresh look” at expanding the NCAA tournament last year, citing the need to create a bracket that includes every realistic national championship contender.

A No. 3 is the lowest seed to win the women’s NCAA tournament, but there is more parity in the men’s game. While the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, a No. 8 seed, remain the lowest-seeded men’s team to win a national title, the First Four has twice produced a Final Four team and a double-digit seed has reached three out of the last six Final Fours.

In an SEC Network appearance last October, Sankey pointed to a 23-win Texas A&M team that won seven of its last eight games but was left out of the men’s tournament last March. He also cited Ole Miss baseball, which was the last team to make the 2022 NCAA tournament and went on to win the national championship.

Concluded Sankey: “I think there’s ways for us to think about creating access points that bring more people into the game.”

Some influential college basketball coaches and conference commissioners sided with Sankey. At ACC media day, Miami’s Jim Larrañaga suggested a 96-team NCAA tournament with the 32 conference tournament winners earning a first-round bye. Missouri’s Dennis Gates told reporters at the SEC tipoff event that he’d like to see the size of the NCAA tournament field “doubled.”

And yet, despite the thirst for NCAA bids and the money and job security that comes with them, not every coach was so self-serving. In fact, one coach who has endured the agony of being the first team left out of the NCAA tournament preached a more prudent approach.

'Exclusivity is what makes it special'

On March 17, 2019, the UNC Greensboro men’s basketball team gathered at head coach Wes Miller’s home to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. The Spartans won 28 games that season and pushed SEC powers LSU and Kentucky deep into losses, but a defeat in the SoCon title game left them at the mercy of the selection committee.

Nervous silence turned to tearful anguish when CBS unveiled the final quadrant of the bracket without mentioning UNC Greensboro. Another gut punch followed when Miller learned that the Spartans were the very last team in the field until Oregon won the Pac-12 tournament the previous night and shrunk the bubble by one spot.

“When you’re in those positions where you’re splitting hairs if you’re in or out, it’s agonizing,” Miller, now the head coach at Cincinnati, told Yahoo Sports. “We had the best year in the history of the school and we felt down in the dumps.”

It would be easy for someone who endured that heartbreak to flippantly lobby for more teams to make the NCAA tournament, but Miller’s stance is far more thoughtful. While he would love for more people to experience the joy of participating in the NCAA tournament, he worries that “the exclusivity is what makes it special” and that expansion would have unintended consequences.

Would including every power-conference team with a pulse reduce the regular season to a seeding contest? Would adding a glut of borderline power-conference teams push more mid-majors into the play-in round and eliminate the giant-slaying Cinderellas that give the NCAA tournament its charm?

“My first gut reaction has always been let’s be careful not to fix something that’s not broken,” Miller said. “We have the greatest sporting event in the world, so I’m always super cautious suggesting changing something that is already elite.”

Those concerns raised by Miller will surely be echoed by the men’s and women’s basketball committees when they weigh the transformation committee’s recommendations. Burnett was part of the men’s basketball committee from 2017-22, but he says he and his former colleagues didn’t discuss NCAA tournament expansion enough for him to guess which way they might be leaning.

“Maybe it came up in a casual conversation over dinner, but I just don’t recall anything in an official capacity,” Burnett said. “We had our hands full with other stuff.”

Gavitt pointed out two major differences between the current environment and the last time NCAA tournament expansion was on the agenda. He noted that this time the TV rights deal is not expiring and that the NCAA's broadcast partners aren't exerting any pressure to expand beyond 68 teams.

Though Gavitt emphasized that past iterations of the men’s basketball committee have seen little upside to NCAA tournament expansion, he declined to predict what the current committee would recommend. He’d only say that he was confident the committee would be “thoughtful and deliberate” in their upcoming discussions.

“The reason that the basketball championships are as successful as they are is a direct result of the leadership of the basketball committees over the decades,” Gavitt said. “They’ve made business decisions that have driven the value and popularity of the basketball championships. The folks on the basketball committees understand how the basketball championships work. They’ll make the right decision.”