The NCAA made the popular move, the smart move and the right move — a rare trifecta for such a secretive and insular institution.
But officials never explained why they expanded the men’s basketball tournament to 68 teams instead of 96.
The move to add only three teams, which was approved on Thursday by the NCAA’s board of directors, was more surprising than Butler reaching the Final Four.
So allow me to explain:
—It wasn’t because of the strong resistance to 96. There were many naysayers among member schools, media, fans and coaches fearful that a 50 percent increase in size would undermine the significance of the regular season.
—It wasn’t because of concerns that adding a round of play would cause the “student-athletes” to miss even more class time than they do now.
—It wasn’t because of concerns that a 96-team men’s tournament would create fairness issues with the women’s event remaining at 64.
Instead, NCAA officials settled on 68 teams for this reason: Money, or lack thereof.
Shocking, I know.
Expansion in any form was on the table because the NCAA planned to opt out of the final three years of its contract with CBS. Officials believed that offering up more broadcasting opportunities to the primary bidders, CBS and ESPN, would drive up the rights fee. And 96 teams would create two more days of games (the Monday and Tuesday of the second week).
But the NCAA apparently misjudged the value of a 96-team event before it accepted formal bids from the networks.
“I think 96 (became public) before they knew the value of the event at that size,” said a source briefed on expansion by NCAA officials. “Then it turned out that the difference in rights fees between 68 and 96 wasn’t that great . . . so they ended up going with the least-compromising way to tweak it.”
The root of the NCAA’s problem isn’t the size of the basketball tournament but the structure of football finances.
The Bowl Championship Series television contract was worth $142 million last season — and not a dime went to the NCAA. Instead, it was distributed to the 11 conferences that play major college football, plus Notre Dame.
Without that revenue stream, the 200-plus schools in basketball-only leagues are wholly dependent upon the March Madness contract, which accounts for 96 percent of the NCAA’s revenue.
“There’s so much pressure on that single property to fund the association,” the source said.
Ultimately, the NCAA expanded the field by three teams and agreed to a 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Sports that is worth approximately $770 million annually.
The announcement was well-received by media, fans and college officials, such as Santa Clara athletic director Dan Coonan.
Coonan was so concerned about the academic and fairness issues of a 96-team tournament that he wrote a letter to NCAA executives and the board of directors in March, urging them to reconsider a field of that size.
“I thought the effort to expand (to 96) really ignored the academic impact of the proposed format, not to mention the gender-equity implications of expanding the men’s tournament without expanding the women’s,” Coonan said. “I felt it would have been the wrong decision for the wrong reasons.”
But we might not have heard the last of the 96-team tournament.
When asked last week if 68 was a permanent or temporary number, NCAA interim president Jim Isch said it was in place “for now.” CBS executive Sean McManus added that there is flexibility in the new contract “to accommodate expansion if that happens.”
If the NCAA becomes convinced that 96 teams would substantially add revenue, it will happen.