March 31, 2010

The Southwestern Lake Wobegon State Tech Flying Pigs Are On the Bubble

"Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."
—Garrison Keillor
With the NCAA Final Four set for this weekend, the sports news of the day is that this year is likely the last edition of the tournament to have 64 (well, technically 65) teams.  Yup, the Big Dance is going to change from a high school prom to a warehouse rave.  The reason, as always in college athletics, is about the money:

The NCAA can opt out of its current tournament broadcast contract with CBS after this season. It has three years, $2.131 billion remaining of an original 11-year, $6 billion contract.

Some have said that an extra round of 31 games would make the tournament a more valuable television property. The decision has to be made by this summer. The NCAA asked television networks for their thoughts in a request for proposals sent out earlier this year. (31 March 2010)
There's probably little doubt that CBS (or another network) would pay dearly for an extra 31 first-round games (actually 32, since nobody regards the current "play-in game" as a real part of the tournament, despite the NCAA's dogmatic insistence to the contrary).  But frankly, this is a solution in search of a problem.  As my buddy Jugweed tweeted this morning, most sports fans want a college football playoff and don't want an expanded basketball playoff, and the NCAA is giving us exactly the opposite.

Several prominent coaches, including Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Jay Wright of Villanova, are staunch advocates of an expanded tournament field.  Coaches favor expansion in part because success in the tournament translates into significant revenues for the teams and their schools, and in part because coaches often lose their jobs for failing to make the tournament frequently enough.  These coaches argue that only 65 out of 344 (roughly 20%) NCAA Division I teams make the tournament, far less than the nearly 50% of college football teams who play in bowl games.  This "participation ribbons for everyone" argument, however, mixes apples and oranges, as only two football teams play in the national title game and another eight teams play in presitigious BCS bowl games, while most of the remaining bowl games are "minor" and hold little public interest except for fans of the teams playing, and degenerate sports gamblers.

Another reason cited for expanding the tournament is the claim that deserving teams are shut out of the tournament because of the 65-team format.  This rationale is pure bovine excrement.  Look at the teams who were "on the bubble" and just missed qualifying for the tournament field this year:  Illinois, Utah State, Virginia Tech, and Mississippi State.  Those four teams were mediocre at best during the regular season.  Does anyone seriously want to argue that any of those teams would have made the Final Four had they been in the field?  Instead, they likely would have lost in the first or second round, much like the last few at-large teams to qualify (Florida, Missouri, and Minnesota).

Look at the current NIT field, comprised of the 32 "next best" teams not in the Big Dance.  Expansion advocates are essentially arguing that these teams should be added to the current NCAA tournament field.  Can a basketball fan (other than a fan of a particular team) honestly argue that any of those teams is good enough to have made a deep run in an expanded tournament this season?  North Carolina was sub-.500 in the ACC, and coach Roy Willimas freely admits his team was terrible this year, even making a poorly articulated comparison to the earthquake tragedy in Haiti.  Yet the Tarheels are in the NIT championship game!  Do we really need to bloat the Big Dance with a bunch of teams that can't even pull off a good "Sprinkler" or "Butter Churn" move (or worse)?

The real reason for expanding the field is not that qualified teams are being excluded, but rather because mediocre teams from the major "power" conferences are being excluded.  Out of the 65 teams in the field, 31 are "automatic qualifiers", generally by virtue of winning their conference post-season tournament; each conference receives one automatic bid.  Thus, "Cinderella teams" get into the tournament field despite having a low (or non-existent) profile in the national sports media.  Usually small schools from obscure conferences, these teams tend to be "directional" (East Tennessee State) and "fake state" (San Diego State) schools.  These teams provide most of the drama and charm of the first two or three rounds of the tournament, pulling the occasional upset of one of the "big dog" schools (e.g., 15-seed Hampton beating 2-seed Iowa State in 2001, or 14-seed Northwestern State—a directional fake state two-fer— beating 3-seed Iowa in 2006).

What's wrong with letting these Cinderella-wannabes attend the ball?  Well, the NCAA tournament is a monstrous cash cow, and the milk is divvied up among all of the Division I basketball schools using a formula based in large part on the number of tournament wins a conference's teams have had over the preceding six years.  Thus, the more teams a conference has in the tournament, the greater the number of potential wins, and the greater the potential payday for the conference.  Following the 2009 season, the six "power" conferences (the same as the six BCS conferences in football) received from $14 million to $28 million each, while smaller conferences with fewer qualifying teams and fewer wins received exponentially less; for example, even though Memphis University has had a history of success over the past decade, their Conference-USA only received $8.4 million, still the most among the non-power conferences.  This year's pseudo-Cinderella, Butler University, has a history of success in the tournament, but their Horizon League is not even in the top ten conferences for revenue received from the tournament.  Ditto for Gonzaga and the WCC, despite Gonzaga's perennial tournament success over the past decade or more.  Outside the power conferences, only the "high-major" conferences (e.g., Atlantic-10, Conference-USA, and MWC) are receiving any significant money from the NCAA tournament, yet the amounts pale in comparison to the Big 6 power conferences, and even some of the high-majors (e.g., the WAC) are missing the gravy train.

The economic incentives tied to maximizing conference wins leads to some perverse incentives in the tournament selection and seeding process.  First, seeding and bracketing rules require the top three teams from any conference to be placed in different regions, while two teams from the same conference cannot play prior to the regional final game (Elite Eight), unless a conference has more than eight teams in the tournament.  These rules permit the power conferences to maximize their potential wins, by not cannibalizing wins from other conference teams.  Next, the tournament committee (usually dominated by members of the power conferences) will often schedule first-round matchups between good teams from "mid-major" conferences.  This minimizes the potential wins of the mid-major conferences, and lets power conference teams face easier low-major conference opponents in the first-round.  Finally, the tournament committee is able to select mediocre power conference teams ahead of mid-major or low-major conference regular season champions who were upset in their conference tournaments; again, this maximizes potential power conference wins while minimizing potential wins for the mid/low-major conferences.

What does this all mean in terms of the practical effect of expanding the tournament field?  Let's look at the breakdown of the 2009 and 2010 tournaments.*  The top 32 teams (the 1-8 seeds) would get byes the first round of an expanded tournament.  Who are those teams?  In 2010, 24 of 32 (75%) of the teams with 1-8 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences (this number is probably low when compared to recent years, due to the weakness of the Pac-10 conference with only one team with a seed in the 1-8 range).  In 2009, 27 of 32 (84%) of the teams with 1-8 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences.  The first round bye would benefit the power conferences in two ways.  First, the low/mid-major teams would be pitted against each other with higher frequency in the first round (much as occurs with the current play-in game), allowing more power conference teams to advance to the second round.  Second, assuming the first round games are played within a few days of the start of the round of 64, the power conference teams with byes would be better rested and have a greater preparation advantage in the second round games, likely reducing the frequency of upsets by low/mid-major teams. 

However, the power conferences would glean yet another advantage from the expanded field.  The 1-4 seeded teams are given greater protection in terms of the site of their opening round games under the "pod" system.  These teams travel shorter distances, resulting in better fan support and less team fatigue.  In 2009, 15 out of 16 (94%) of the teams with 1-4 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences.  In 2010, 13 out of 16 (81%) of the teams with 1-4 seeds were from the Big 6 power conferences. Once again, the expanded field would enable the power conferences to maximize their advantages over the low/mid-major conferences.

The power conferences are interested in expanding the tournament field not because it is good for basketball fans, or to include the little schools.  No, the power conferences are expanding the tournament field because they want the low/mid-major schools to have a smaller piece of the basketball revenue pie, and expanding the field is politically easier to accomplish than eliminating automatic bids for all conferences.  The net result of expanding the tournament field, however, is to increase the total TV revenue (more games), and to give the power conferences an even greater edge in maximizing their share of those revenues (more power conference teams in the tournament, earlier elimination of low/mid-major teams, and greater protection against upsets by low/mid-majors).

No doubt about it, the NCAA basketball tournament is big business, and the power conferences are the big shot CEOs intent on maximizing their personal income however they can.  The low/mid-major schools are merely the hourly workers who will have to tolerate a pay cut just to keep food on the table.  As always, be skeptical whenever a CEO says a program is being implemented for the benefit of his workers!


* (Below the jump are detailed breakdowns of teams seeded 1-8 by conference for 2009 & 2010)


Big 12 (6)—Kansas (1); Oklahoma St. (7); Kansas St. (2); Texas (8); Texas A&M (5); Baylor (3);

Big East (7)—Georgetown (3); Syracuse (1); Pitt (3); Marquette (6); West Virginia (2); Notre Dame (6); Villanova (2)

Big 10 (4)—Michigan St. (5); Ohio St. (2); Wisconsin (4); Purdue (4)

ACC (3)—Maryland (4); Clemson (7); Duke (1);

Pac-10 (1)—California (8)

SEC (3)—Tennessee (6); Vanderbilt (4); Kentucky (1);

Conference-USA (0)—None

Horizon League (1)—Butler (5);

Mountain West (2)—UNLV (8); New Mexico (3)

WCC (1)—Gonzaga (8)

Atlantic-10 (3)—Xavier (6); Temple (5); Richmond (7)

WAC (1)—BYU (7)


Big 12 (5)—Kansas (3); Missouri (3); Oklahoma St. (8); Texas (7); Oklahoma (2)

Big East (8)—Louisville (1); West Virginia (6); Boston College (7); Connecticut (1); Marquette (6); Pitt (1); Villanova (3); Syracuse (3)

Big 10 (4)—Ohio St. (8); Michigan St. (2); Purdue (5); Illinois (5)

ACC (5)—Wake Forest (4); Florida St. (5); Duke (2); North Carolina (1); Clemson (7)

Pac-10 (4)—Washington (4); California (7); UCLA (6); Arizona St. (6)

SEC (1)—LSU (8)

Atlantic-10 (1)—Xavier (4)

Conference-USA (1)—Memphis (2)

MWC (2)—Utah (5); BYU (8)

WAC (0)—None

WCC (1)—Gonzaga (4)


  1. Great entry. This is way more cogent and well researched than anything written for free has any need to be.

    Couple points:

    1)Some of the coaches calling for expansion should stop and consider (as Doug Gottleib has pointed out on the air) that expansion will likely lead to more of them getting fired, "you mean to tell me you couldn't even make a 96 team field, you're fired."
    2) Any team in the country that had a mediocre regular season can still receive an automatic bid to the big dance by winning their conference tournament. Case in point this year is Ohio: 7-9 in conference play, only to win their tournament and go on to pound Georgetown. This is the reason conference tournaments still have meaning.
    3) A 96 team field won't fit neatly on a paper bracket the way the 64 team field does. This may seem like a silly concern in the age of the I-pad, but for lots of casual fans filling in the paper bracket by hand is the best part of the tournament.
    4) I schedule vacation days every year for the opening Thursday/Friday, as do most of my friends. We will no longer be doing that, the excitement is simply gone from the opening games when the best 32 teams have byes and instead you're stuck with watching a #9 seeded Texas team play a #24 seeded Wichita State or something of the like.

    Way to whore out a good product NCAA!

  2. @ Jugweed:

    It will be interesting to see if the new "bubble watch" starts being a simultaneous "coaching death watch". Based on college football, though, making an expanded tourney may not be enough to save a coache's job, just as making the Poulan Weedeater Bowl might not be considered a "successful" year for some programs.

    As for office pools, I agree completely that some casual office pool participants may be turned off by the expanded brackets, both because of the paper issue, and because it's a lot more games to pick based on colors or mascots.

    As for logistics, I suspect the NCAA will simply add two teams to each four-team pod. Games the first week will then be Tues/Thurs/Sat or Wed/Fri/Sun depending on your pod. This might require the selection committee to release the bracket earlier to allow travel planning time, or they may move the first three rounds to Wed-Mon. (the women already play Mondays, so it's a viable option).

  3. The hilarity continued to ensue yesterday at the NCAA's press confernece when Mr. Shaheen on behalf of the NCAA flatly refused to answer John Feinstein's question about players missing a full week of class under the proposed expanded format (which just so happens to be the NCAA's primary argument against a football playoff). Funny how hard it is to hide outright hypocrisy.