by Bruce Dunlavy            

(My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

The Oscar® ceremonies are over, and March Madness® has begun. One segues into the next. What’s the common denominator?

Dare I say, “Whining”?

After the Motion Picture Academy announces the nominees for its awards, the cognoscenti begin to chirp about who unjustly did or did not receive a nomination. After the awards ceremony, the complaining grows louder and grumpier, and it lasts until the next thing to whine about comes along. Last month they handed out the Oscars®, and the Greek chorus immediately started to bewail the tragedy that had occurred.

All right, so the Oscars® are the awards we all love to hate, but it is important to remember this: the Oscars® are not ordained by God and run by angels in heaven. It’s just a bunch of people in a club voting awards to one another, the same as Greater Cleveland Rotarian of the Year (which causes just as much heartburn, but among a much smaller crowd of observers).

Now comes the NCAA Division I national championship in basketball. After weeks of speculation and assignments of “In,” Out,” and “On the Bubble,” the selection process is televised to a mass audience of apprehensive, anxiety-ridden fans waiting for the moment when they can begin to “fill out their brackets,” an activity so important that even the President of the United States must reveal his predictions.

However, before the bracketology begins, another time-tested tradition must be honored – the whining about who got in, who didn’t get in, and the unfairness of the seedings. A team’s designation of Number Seven seed instead of Number Five seed is endlessly argued. Why this or that team got selected instead of this or that other team. Who was sent to the play-in games. Which team is overrated, underrated, misrepresented, or has been sent to the wrong region.

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It’s time to leave the Fantasy World of Sports Purity and look at this realistically.  Again, these determinations are not made by angels in heaven, but by a committee of people. The people on the committee are always thinking about what selections, what seedings, what location assignments are most likely to produce the most television viewers. That’s where the money comes from.

The money? Oh, yes, the money. Some people think the purpose of the NCAA tournament is to find out which is the best college basketball team in the country this year. Those people are mistaken. The purpose of the NCAA tournament is to make as much money as is humanly possible.

The amount of money to be made is astonishing. From current television contracts alone, the basketball tournament will provide the NCAA with about 750 million dollars a year for the next 14 years. The television networks providing that money expect to pull in over a billion dollars in advertising fees. That is more than the NFL post-season, almost twice the NBA post-season, and nearly three times the baseball post-season.

That is why – and how – this tournament has become what it is. Back in 1939, when the basketball still had laces, jump balls were common, and players had to dribble the ball straight up and down, the NCAA began a championship tournament. It was pretty simple. Eight teams were involved, one from each major conference and two independents, and the teams from the west met in San Francisco while the eastern teams met in Philadelphia. The next weekend, the final was played in Evanston, Illinois, and that was it.

At first, the National Invitational Tournament (founded in 1938) was a bigger event, and it remained that way for the first decade or so. Teams often participated in both tournaments, and in 1950 City College of New York became the only team to win both. In 1951, the NCAA instituted a rule forbidding teams in its tourney from competing in the NIT, which declined in prestige afterward and in 2005 was taken over by the NCAA.

Also in 1951, the NCAA expanded its tournament field to 16 teams in four regions in order to accommodate an increase in the number of conferences. For the next two decades, the number of teams varied between 22 and 25, until in 1975 the number was fixed at 32 conference champions and at-large teams. That year, for the first time, a conference was allowed to have more than one team in the tournament (remember that for later; it’s important). Since then the field has been expanded incrementally to the present 68 teams.

Even theoretically, the teams in the NCAA tournament are not the best 68 teams in the nation, as each of the 32 conferences puts its champion in the field. This includes such obscure leagues as the America East Conference, the Big Sun Conference, and the Colonial Athletic Association. This year the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s entry was league-tourney champion Hampton University, with a 16-17 record entering the round of 68. Hampton finished the regular season sixth in the MEAC. No one would suggest that there are only 67 teams in the country better than Hampton.

With the minor-conference champions earning the chunk of the 32 automatic berths that the major conference champs don’t get, there are 36 at-large openings for the non-champs. Needless to say, none of them ever come from the also-rans in the Southland Conference or the Summit League.

The field is filled out with teams from the middle of the power conferences such as the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference. One thing is almost a certainty – it doesn’t really matter who that might be, because whoever it is won’t win. Only one team has ever won the tournament with a seeding as low as eighth (Villanova in 1985).  A four seed has won once, a six seed twice, and last year a seven seed.  All the other winners have been seeded one, two, or three.  In fact, only five times has a team seeded worse than eighth made it to the final four.

So how much difference does it make who gets in if they are seeded in the lower half of the 68 teams? What difference would it make if the tournament expanded to 72, 96, 128, or even 256 teams? Every team added just adds another loser.

The difference, of course, is money. We’ve already discovered how much money is generated by the tournament, but there’s a special status attached to this money.
This money – unlike the tournament proceeds of any other NCAA sport – goes not to the NCAA but to the schools. Half the payout from the tournament is given directly to the schools based on a formula that includes how many NCAA sports they sponsor and the total number of “scholarships” they award in all sports.  Combined with what the teams make on their own television deals, ticket sales, and distributions from their conferences, it helps over 120 of the basketball teams in the country to turn a profit.

The remaining half of the tournament payout goes to the conferences, and through them to the schools, based on two statistics from the most recent six tournaments: how many teams the conference sends to the tournament and the performance of those teams once they get there.

What this results in, of course, is pressure from the all-sports power conferences – those which used to be known as the BCS Six – to get as many of their second-tier teams selected as possible. It also means that the rich get richer. These big conferences, with universities that sponsor a lot of sports (especially football, with its 85 “scholarships”), get a lot of the payout to split among all of their members. The lowest-paid of these six conferences receives more than twice as much as the seventh-best-paid conference.

That’s right, the only NCAA tournament that gives its profits to the universities instead of itself uses a system that rewards teams who play lousy basketball. They just have to do it in powerful conferences.  As a result, Northwestern University, which has never been to the NCAA basketball tournament, still gets enough money just from being part of the Big Ten to make its basketball program more profitable than that of the University of Kentucky, which has been to the tourney 53 times and won eight of them. [Update: Northwestern finally received a tournament spot in 2017.]

In 2011, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics decried this distribution, which rewards mainly the power conferences, which are also the conferences whose member schools generally are least likely to have their players graduate.

Of course, nothing changed. The NCAA is not an independent agency sent to ensure justice in the unjust world of intercollegiate athletics. Like the Motion Picture Academy, it is a club awarding prizes to its members. It bends to the will of the rich and powerful universities and conferences and rewards them accordingly. And one of the biggest rewards a conference can receive is to have more of its teams chosen for the tournament, even if they lose.

Big-time college sports is a business, not an art. That’s why the selection of teams for the tournament is not made not by judges, philosophers, and academic statisticians, but by a political process.