Fousseyni Traore (45) of the Brigham Young Cougars dunks the ball against the Duquesne Dukes during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at CHI Health Center on March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb.

Fousseyni Traore (45) of the Brigham Young Cougars dunks the ball against the Duquesne Dukes during the second half in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at CHI Health Center on March 21, 2024, in Omaha, Neb. (Jamie Squire, Getty Images/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — The first round of the NCAA’s men’s basketball tournament started Thursday. But it won’t be the only college basketball competition worth watching this year. Two weeks ago, organizers of a new tournament planned for the fall at the MGM Arena in Las Vegas indicated they’d offer each participating school up to $2 million in NIL money that must be distributed to current athletes.

The Players Era tournament, as it’s known, isn’t competing against March Madness (not yet, at least). But as college athletics undergoes seismic, money-driven changes, it’s one model for the future. Others, intended to further enrich schools, athletic conferences and media partners, are also emerging.

The consequences are stark. By next season, March Madness could look very different. Within a decade, it could be obsolete. Fans, now settling into their sofas to watch some great basketball, should enjoy this year’s tournament as if it’s a last dance.

The NCAA’s first March Madness dance began in 1939. Since then, the organization has steadily grown its men’s basketball tournament — and the money earned by it.

As of 2023, more than 80% of the NCAA’s revenues come from the tournament. That money doesn’t simply stay with the NCAA; much of it is paid out in (roughly) $2 million “units” to athletic conferences based upon each team they qualify and win they earn. It adds up: The SEC took in $34 million worth of units last year.

But the process of getting in is where the problems start and what has long inspired discussions about alternatives to March Madness. Currently, 32 teams automatically qualify for the tournament by winning their conference tournaments. Most of the automatic qualifiers are from smaller leagues, and as a result, competitive teams from bigger conferences often don’t make the tournament, which ultimately also means the money.

This year, for example, the Big East, a longtime basketball power conference, saw three of its 20-win teams fail to qualify for the tournament. In response, the Big East has loudly complained about the NCAA’s selection process. And it’s not alone. On Wednesday, legendary Michigan State coach Tom Izzo (whose team qualified for this year’s tournament) pointedly noted that he wasn’t sure the process was good for the game.

Potential solutions are on the table. Last year, the NCAA proposed expanding the men’s basketball tournament to as many as 90 teams. It didn’t specify who would get those slots and how the money would be divided. But change in the tournament’s structure is imminent. The Athletic recently reported that the tournament will likely expand to 72 or 76 teams as soon as next year.

That’s unlikely to be a happy outcome for college basketball traditionalists. Among other problems, it may dilute the quality of play while marginalizing the importance of the regular season. Then there is the question of money. Unless the NCAA’s media partners are willing to pay for additional games, conferences would be dividing the revenue pie more finely as the tournament expands.

That leaves the biggest conferences with a different and arguably better possibility. Why not start their own post-season competition independent of the NCAA?

There’s plenty of interest available to make it happen. Last year, Fox Sports proposed a tournament featuring teams from the Big 12, Big East and Big Ten conferences that don’t make the NCAA tournament. Money would be a significant factor if Fox or somebody else wanted to take the next step and lure schools and conferences away altogether.

But the funds seem to be available. By one account, the NCAA undervalued its most recent sale of its men’s March Madness rights by as much as $9 billion through the early 2030s. The most recent sale of the women’s tournament may have under-valued it by nearly $50 million a year. If they wanted to do it, the major conferences would have no trouble finding sponsors, private equity and media rights partners.

There’s ample precedent that it could work, too. The College Football Playoff is owned and operated by 10 athletic conferences, plus the University of Notre Dame. CFP — not the NCAA — decides who participates and how the money is divided. On Wednesday, it completed a new, six-year agreement with ESPN that will pay it $1.3 billion annually.

It’s not just the schools and conferences that can potentially benefit from this influx of money. NCAA rules do not prevent networks and other CFP sponsors from offering athletes NIL payments. A new spring basketball tournament looking for an edge over the NCAA could be the trailblazer.

The outcome would be a different kind of event that better reflects the money-driven evolution of college athletics.

It may not have the same form as the current March Madness, but the basketball matchups will be superior, and that’s the kind of madness every fan should enjoy.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of sports. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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