What will the future of the NCAA men's tournament look like? There's a lot at stake

ByPete Thamel ESPN logo
Friday, March 15, 2024

THE NCAA MEN'Sbasketball tournament bracket will be unveiled Sunday, beginning a magical sporting event that unifies the country every year for nearly a month.

The tournament that gave us UCLA's dominance, Villanova's perfection and Butler's pluck remains poised for another edition of upsets, buzzer-beaters and the transformations of unknown players to household names in a 67-game blur.

Meanwhile, the NCAA is dealing with a flurry of court cases, labor board decisions and congressional apathy. And as college sports teeters on the precipice of significant change, there's concern the NCAA's hallmark event will change with it.

According to ESPN sources, there are ongoing discussions about expanding the men's NCAA basketball tournament from the current 68-team format to one featuring no more than 80 teams. There are also fears about what could happen to the all-comers tournament if the power leagues break away from the rest of college athletics, as football decisions continue to define the direction of major college sports.

Amid all the uncertainty, former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski asks that college sports leaders take a pause until "we can see the future better."

"You don't change something now not knowing -- Is there going to be an NCAA? If there will be an NCAA, what will it be? Before you start messing around with [the tournament], understand what it is. It's a treasure. It's not something where you flippantly say, 'Let's go to 96 [teams].' Everyone, just keep quiet and recognize the treasure we have."

But will all the various constituencies involved in guiding the future of college sports value the NCAA tournament as Krzyzewski does? Probably not. And there's certainly worry in corners of the Division I ecosystem that future changes could strip the tournament of its essence.

Would expansion make it more unlikely that smaller-conference programs have the opportunity to pull off first-round upsets because they'll be forced to win their way into the traditional 64-team bracket? Will the monetary pull of football's expanding power conferences eventually threaten the enduring David vs. Goliath tension that has yielded Saint Peter's beating Kentucky, Fairleigh Dickinson toppling Purdue and UMBC besting Virginia in recent years?

"It worries me every day of my life," VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin told ESPN. "Not only because we're so focused on men's basketball and women's basketball and how important the sport is for our institution.

"But it's the single greatest sporting event in our country. More people get involved in March Madness as casual sports fans, really, than anything else."

There appears to be a recognition among leaders in the sport that a national tournament that features only blue bloods would struggle to resonate as deeply as one that features both small and big programs. NCAA senior vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt said, "There's very good reason to believe the tournament should stay relatively similar to what we've been used to."

Added Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin: "It's too much of a public trust for us to blow the thing up. You can do a new model [for college sports] down the road while maintaining a national basketball tournament that's inclusive."

But with so much uncertainty on the collegiate landscape, it's worth asking: What will the NCAA tournament look like in the future?

What's next?

THE MOST NOTABLE NCAA tournament expansion bull has been SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who co-chaired the NCAA transformation committee that formally recommended expansion in January 2023 and first made headlines about expansion in comments to Sports Illustrated in August 2022.

In a recent phone interview, Sankey acknowledged the tournament is one of the few things that bonds the disparate world of Division I together. "Nothing remains static," he told ESPN. "I think we have to think about the dynamics around Division I and the tournament."

He added that recent runs by UCLA from the First Four to the Final Four in 2021 and Syracuse's run to the round of 16 beginning with a play-in game in Dayton in 2018 show the caliber of power-conference teams on the fringe of the NCAA tournament.

"That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive," Sankey said. "We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues], and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of expansion."

Ten years ago, there were five so-called power football leagues with an average of 12.6 teams. Next season, the SEC will have 16 teams, the Big Ten will have 18 teams, the Big 12 will have 16 teams, and the ACC will have 18 teams. (The basketball-driven Big East has 11 programs.) Gavitt stresses that the NCAA and the men's basketball tournament committee have spent a lot of time discussing a new model that will be reflective of the new league dynamics without changing the essence of the tournament.

"It's important not to apply an old model to a new dynamic to keep something special and beloved," he said. "In any business, you have to evolve and change. That's what's being contemplated. It's not portending an outcome."

In 1985, there were 282 Division I teams, according to the NCAA. Now there are 362. The last attempt at extensive tournament expansion was in 2010, when the NCAA held a news conference to talk about the details of a potential 96-team tournament. That plan quickly fizzled.

Gavitt hears the concerns of membership and traditionalists who see the bracket as a paragon of sporting perfection. It's worth noting that the NCAA tournament has changed over time. The field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, added an additional spot in 2001 and then the field bumped by three spots to the current 68-team model in 2011 after the chatter about 96 teams.

But NCAA president Charlie Baker recognizes that the tournament, as constructed, is extremely popular.

"Most of the people who follow college sports think the NCAA tournament in basketball is perfect, right?" Baker told ESPN recently. "So anything that's done to change it needs to be done with care and consideration. I certainly think there's an opportunity there to do more, to bring more teams into the tournament."

What could it look like?

AFTER CONVERSATIONS WITH sources in and around the sport and around the industry, it seems the tournament, if it expands, will include no more than 80 teams. And more modest expansions, such as the 76-team bracket Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark floated this week at the Big 12 tournament, are also on the table. Expansion by a multiple of four would be the most seamless from a bracket perspective, leaving a 72-team or 76-team tournament as the most likely models.

Multiple conference commissioners have stressed that they still place a premium on league tournaments, which are a huge moneymaker for every league and a primary revenue source for smaller conferences. If those tournaments stay in the same time frame, it would be difficult for the NCAA tournament to grow past 80 teams. League tournaments have buildings reserved for years, so any radical calendar change likely wouldn't be able to happen until the end of the current CBS/Turner deal in 2032.

The NCAA alone will decide whether to expand the tournament. But its ability to negotiate television rights will have a big influence on its decision.

The current NCAA tournament multimedia rights deal is considered by many around the television industry as one of the most imprudent financial decisions in the history of major televised sports. At the time, NCAA president Mark Emmert and executive vice president Mark Lewis chose long-term security over maximizing the value of the deal.

"The moment they did that deal, it was already under market," an industry source said. "The NCAA probably knew, but they aren't in the risk-taking business."

The NCAA's decision to extend its television contract in 2016 came with eight years left on the existing deal, which was set to expire after the 2024 NCAA tournament. If the NCAA hadn't extended the contract early, bidding for the next rights deal would have started nearly two years ago amid a ripe market flush with potential cash from streamers looking to get the rights to top-tier sports content.

"The 2010 negotiations were very intentional and intricate regarding how the broadcast agreements were crafted and the specific timelines that were involved," said former NCAA executive Greg Shaheen, who now works as a consultant. "All of the benefit from that work was lost when the agreement was renegotiated a few years later."

Instead, the NCAA pushed the next round of negotiations out to 2032 and accepted only small annual increases. The move was made to assure income, but it will be remembered for costing the NCAA and its member schools billions.

Some industry sources estimated that the men's tournament, today, could be worth nearly double the $1.1 billion it brings in annually, given the way premium sports rights have exploded in value since 2016. (In 2021, for example, the NHL doubled its rights package from $300 million to more than $600 million.) It's worth noting that the television rights deal for the expected 14-team College Football Playoff in 2026 is worth more money -- $1.3 billion -- than the average price of $1.1 billion over the course of the deal for the 67-game tournament.

Lewis now works in the liquor distribution business in Montana. Emmert has retired after one of the worst tenures of a modern sports executive, leaving a legacy of apathy, inertia and lost billions for the NCAA and its members.

"That renegotiation both impacted the upside value that the association could recognize as well as its ability to [negotiate] the subsequent agreements," said Shaheen, who oversaw championships as an executive vice president with the NCAA until April 2012. "The lack of institutional history and knowledge about the strategy really impacted the subsequent negotiations."

Who will be impacted?

IN A MODEST brick office building on D Street in South Boston, the America East Conference offices are down the hall from Sensei Biotherapeutics and the SG US Technology Excellence Center.

The office entrance last week was cluttered with boxes of Rice Krispie Treats and Snyder's Pretzels in preparation for the conference tournament. The offices house 11 employees and are a long way from the world of linear conference television networks and billion-dollar contracts.

Casual basketball fans might not be able to rattle off the teams in the America East, but they likely remember the league helping author some indelible March moments. UMBC of the America East became the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 in 2018 when it knocked off Virginia. And in 2005, No. 13 Vermont pulled off a memorable overtime upset of No. 4 Syracuse, with Gus Johnson's call of T.J. Sorrentine's shot "from the parking lot" long echoing in lore.

The America East receives a unit -- worth nearly $2 million over six years -- from the NCAA's equal conference fund for sending a team to the tournament. It also receives an additional unit for a victory in the tournament, which is a big deal for a modest shop like the America East and all of the traditional one-bid leagues.

"It's important to how we run the business, so the schools aren't necessarily paying for how we run," America East commissioner Brad Walker told ESPN. "We take those funds internally, we distribute a certain portion of it to the institutions that are representing the league on the men's and the women's side. And the rest of that pretty much goes to our general budget."

The America East is like a lot of leagues with seeds you'll see at No. 12 or below in the bracket Sunday. Of the 32 automatic bids given out by the NCAA to conferences, there will be at least 20 leagues that get only one bid. Walker said the unit money represents about 55% of the America East's budget. The America East is still getting paid from the historic UMBC upset, which Walker said will come off the books this year after the six-year cycle.

As changes come to the tournament, there's concern among the leagues that have NCAA units as a primary income source that their access to the NCAA tournament and thus monetary lifelines will be altered. Walker pointed to the conversations about the 14-team College Football Playoff and the expectation that the Big Ten and SEC will get multiple automatic qualifiers.

"It's not too crazy to think that that kind of application might be future discussions that we expect to have about other big events," he said. "And the next biggest event is the basketball tournament."

McLaughlin, the athletic director at VCU of the Atlantic 10, said he worries about access. The metrics used to judge teams are only going to be more slanted toward power leagues as they increase in size and their members continue to play one another 18 or 20 times per year.

He drives back to the essence of the tournament: "Without those magic [upset] moments, the NCAA tournament isn't magic. ... Does greed end up killing the golden goose? Greed kills a lot of things."

Krzyzewski has been around long enough to win the NCAA tournament five times and also to lose to Mercer, Lehigh and VCU in the first round. He considers the tournament to be like an old restaurant in Europe, with a timeless ambience that's personal. "That's our tournament," he said. "It's different. You can't screw around with that. That can never be replicated."

He preaches patience and thinks decision-makers should see how things play out over the next few years before choosing what to do with the tournament.

"I don't see anyone saying, here's what we're going to look like in five years," he said. "When you have that, you build toward it. You don't start a trip without knowing a foreseeable destination ...

"To me, I would not change a damn thing about the tournament right now because we don't know what it's going to fit into in the future. By the way, it's really good right now. It's really good right now. It protects what we need to protect, the innocence of the tournament. Every kid has a chance."

ESPN's Dan Murphy contributed reporting.

Related Video

Related Topics