NCAA expands March Madness from 65 to 68 teams

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA has decided not to mess around too much with March Madness.

College sports’ largest governing body announced a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting on Thursday that will begin with an expanded men’s basketball tournament next March. But instead of jumping to a 96-team field, a possibility that drew criticism from bracket-obsessed fans to coaches, the NCAA plans to expand by only three teams, from 65 to 68.

Every game will be broadcast live nationally for the first time in the tournament’s 73-year history.

“It was a goal from the very, very beginning and I believe it’s what our membership wanted and it’s what our fans wanted across the country,” NCAA interim president Jim Isch said. “I think without question, it was one of the driving factors in our position and why CBS and Turner make such great partners.”

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Striking a balance was a challenge for NCAA officials.

The previous television deal, which gave CBS Sports the broadcast rights for $6 billion over 11 years, would have expired in three years. Both sides had opt-out clauses that had to be exercised by July 31 and the NCAA was preparing to do just that. The hope was to create a bidding war and strike a lucrative deal, generating more money for NCAA payouts to schools.

CBS Sports won the war, beating out at least an offer from ESPN. What’s new is that CBS will share broadcast rights with Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and its stable of cable channels — TNT, TBS and truTV — from 2011 through 2024.

The NCAA won, too: Isch said the new deal will provide an average of $740 million per year that will returned to conferences and schools.

Just a few weeks ago, a much-bigger NCAA tournament seemed like it was all but a done deal.

During a news conference at the Final Four, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen was hounded by questions about how many more classes players would miss to play in additional tourney games. College basketball analysts often called the 65-team format the perfect size, suggesting more teams would water down the tourney. Some coaches, whose jobs often hinge on tourney appearances, even rejected the notion that adding so many teams was a good thing.

Well, the NCAA apparently got the message as did the networks.

“We are very comfortable with 68, that’s what the deal is based on and it meets all our financial needs and programming needs,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports.

The men’s tournament hasn’t expanded since 2001 when it added one team to a 64-team field that was established in 1985. The National Association of Basketball Coaches has long advocated expansion, citing the fact that while the number of Division I teams has expanded greatly over the last quarter-century.

Next Thursday, the NCAA Board of Directors can approve a plan that is likely to add three more opening round games — one in each region — to the one that has been played since 2001.

Some coaches think Thursday’s move is a good start.

“As a coach I’d like to see more people get in but 68 is a good step and the easiest way, to have the least amount of turmoil,” said Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. “It’s better than nothing. There’s really no way to do a little bit bigger expansion. You can’t expand by eight, 10. There’s no way to figure that out.”

Others, like fellow Big East coach Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, were less enthusiastic.

Calhoun pointed to this year’s tournament, which included deep runs by Cornell, Northern Iowa, Xavier and national runner-up Butler, suggesting changes to the format were unnecessary.

“I have a tough time seeing why we have to change a concept that has been so good,” Calhoun said. “This year, the parity was incredible. If you have something that has become magical and what has enhanced it is not more games, but the Butlers and the parity. Those things are what have done it. George Mason. It’s been proven time and again.”

Beginning next year, everything through the second round will be shown nationally on the four networks. CBS and Turner, an entity of Time Warner Inc., will split coverage of the regional semifinal games, while CBS will retain coverage of the regional finals, the Final Four and the championship game through 2015.

Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split by CBS and Turner; the Final Four and the championship game will alternate every year between CBS and TBS. Under the agreement, the NCAA and CBSSports.com will again provide live streaming video of games, though Turner secured rights for any online player it develops.

Could the tourney still go to 96?

Yes.

While Isch and Shaheen said this year’s expansion was not an indication the NCAA was already looking toward more expansion, they didn’t completely rule out the possibility of another expansion. And the broadcast deal also gives the NCAA the right to expand the field at its own discretion.

“That deliberation can go in whatever direction they would like, but there is no expectation of any discussion in the near future,” Shaheen said.

The biggest winner was Turner Broadcasting.

The network, started by former Atlanta Braves owner and entrepreneur Ted Turner, has instantly gone from televising no college basketball games to getting one of the nation’s biggest and most beloved sporting events — including the championship game just six years away.

“Crowning a champion on TBS is something we’ve never done. So to crown a champion on the Turner Network is something we’re very proud of,” David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting, told The Associated Press. “I can’t tell you about the financials, but both CBS and ourselves are very confident this deal will be meaningfully profitable over the life of this contract.”

Turner Broadcasting and CBS outbid ESPN for the tournament rights, a rare loss for a network that owns broadcast rights for other NCAA championships including the women’s tournament, as well as the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA. ESPN has had a niche for covering college basketball since its earliest days on cable television.

But when the biggest prize was on the auction block, ESPN came up short.

“We made an aggressive bid and believe our combination of TV distribution, digital capabilities, season-long coverage and year-round marketing would have served the interests of the NCAA and college fans very well,” ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said.

How critical is the deal to the NCAA? More than 95 percent of the governing body’s total revenue comes from the broadcast rights to the men’s basketball tournament.

And it was clearly important to New York-based CBS. McManus said the “new strategic partnership” was a core asset and a profitable one, though he hinted that annual payments of $700 million over the last three years of the original deal were a load.

“We were prepared to do the last three years of the current deal, it was no secret that those three years would be very challenging,” he said. “But this deal was based on the NCAA coming to us saying that we would like a new deal in place.”

A 96-team field would have likely enveloped the 32-team NIT, the NCAA’s other, independently run season-ending tournament. Instead, the expansion is much more modest.

“I think it’s the right step,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “The NCAA tournament is obviously something that’s very special, the nation connects with. I think this relatively minor adjustment is the right way to go. I think its good for conferences and the regular season. I think it’s good for conference tournaments.”

Big East commissioner John Marinatto agreed.

“I was pleased that the NCAA preserved the character and integrity” of the tournament, he said. “It’s elegant and they kept the elegance in it, by only expanding by three.”

Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director and incoming NCAA tournament committee chairman, said he was happy with the decision.

“They understood that we had a great tournament this year with high ratings and a high level of excitement,” he said. “It was thought that 96 teams would generate more money to support the NCAA’s many sports and initiatives. But we were all able to come to an understanding that gives us the support without adding that many teams.”

Another NCAA committee is looking at whether to expand the women’s tournament or keep it in the current format.

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