Monday, March 22, 2010

Only ESPN ...

would be stupid enough to believe that expanding the NCAA tournament is a good idea. However, with CBS apparently incapable of maintaining the quality of their telecasts, to say nothing of actually bothering to improve their coverage from year to year, the odds are good that the NCAA will opt out of the contract after this season and put it up for bid, and you can count on one pointy little finger the number of networks who ought to be bidding for it.

Breaking for local news? Please. That was stupid 20 years ago. Staggering Saturday and Sunday games so that at times we have only one (incredibly boring) game and at others we have no game at all? Incompetent. Repeatedly showing promos for the same four shows that CBS can't get anyone else to watch either? Lame.

Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that with ESPN bidding on it, one of the carrots they will dangle is that they would be willing to show an extra 31 games, essentially having two "first rounds".

Obviously, this is stupid. Why? Let facts be submitted to a candid world.

Timing. Right now, schools have only days to prepare for a trip to one of eight cities for Thursday or Friday games; two schools actually have to make it to Dayton on Tuesday when the selection show is Sunday. This is not easy.

If the tournament is expanded, there will be two choices. One is to play all 32 games the same week as the first and second rounds; this is, of course, beyond stupid, because there's no way you'd get all those teams to sites by Tuesday and Wednesday, even if you simply played the opening round at first-round sites. Eventually it would screw up. The other option is to play the opening round the weekend before the first and second rounds, which means a dead week before the actual tournament, and that's also stupid.

Cost. Regionals, in general, will sell out (except for 2009, when 20% of seats were unsold). The Final Four obviously does. The early rounds do not. In general, two rules apply: somewhere between 10% and 20% of early-round tickets do not get sold, and if you don't have games in Indianapolis, you're going to have attendance issues. The five highest attendance marks for first-round sessions are all from the RCA Dome. Lest you think it's simply a size issue, the fifth-best attendance mark is 27,959. There are plenty of places with that many seats, but outside Indiana, you won't fill them. (And the third- through fifth-best sessions did not include either Indiana or Purdue, in case you were wondering.)

Dayton hosts the current opening-round game because it's the only place that draws attendance for it, and even at that, it's weak. They had 11,346 in 2009, a record high, but only 8,205 in 2010. If you have separate opening-round sites, you have to find seven more cities that can sell opening-round games, which seems pretty much a no-go because they couldn't find any others as it is. If you have them at first- and second-round sites, you have the same problem they have now (attendance outside of Indy isn't great), except it'll be multiplied.

Dilution. Have you seen the NIT bracket? It's a few regular-season conference champions and a bunch of so-so teams from power conferences, with a few mid-majors thrown in so it's not a complete waste. Does anyone really want to watch two .500 teams from North Carolina? Well, that's what the ACC regular season is for. Sit down.

Almost all of the previous expansion was to serve one of two purposes: to admit additional conferences (there are now 31 automatic qualifiers) or to include teams that could possibly contend for a title but didn't qualify because of the small number of at-large bids available. In 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams, it was mostly to provide every team with the same number of possible games (as opposed to the previous steps that added spots only for new conferences).

With very, very few exceptions, the teams who could win are the teams that are in. For the most part, those additional teams are going to be the .500 teams that slogged their way through the regular season and conference tournaments without doing anything of note ... and now we're to include them in a tournament game?

That won't be the only effect on the field. It isn't like they're going to take the worst automatic qualifiers and leave them as 16 seeds. If one of those teams pulls off an upset as a 24 seed, they'll get an 8 seed in the next round. Yeah. Think about that for a minute. (Of course they could bump seeds up like they do in professional playoffs, but I doubt that's going to happen.)

And then what happens to the NIT? It barely has enough teams to run as it is. What do you think ESPN would do then? Remember, they have the broadcast rights for the NIT now. Good luck working that one out. (I don't care about the other tournaments: they're meaningless and everyone knows it.)

Look, it's not going to devalue the regular season. This isn't football: basketball has always had a regular season of significant length, and regular-season fun didn't disappear when the NCAA first handed out at-large bids. It's going to devalue conference tournaments even more than they've already been weakened. (Look at the Big Ten and Big East. Yeah, West Virginia and Ohio State won and are still around, but Purdue, Syracuse, and Michigan State played like feces, and they also managed to make the Sweet Sixteen.) You think coaches of good teams are going to try when they know they're in no matter what? Do you think Minnesota's going to play hard if they're a 12 seed out of 24 rather than a 12 seed out of possibly 11? (meaning that the last at-large spot at the time might have gone to an 11 seed)

I would love for ESPN to take back control of the tournament and show it properly, but let's be honest: the Worldwide Leader isn't exactly known for its overall broadcast acumen. After all, this is the company that continues to support Around the Horn. Can we count on them to make the right proposal?

Keep the tournament at 65. (Heck, make it 64. Cut out one of the at-large spots. We don't need those teams.) Don't ruin it for everyone.

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