Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tournament Expansion--More Greed, Less Value

It always happens this time of year. Coaches scream that good teams did not get into the NCAA basketball tournament and demand it be expanded. ESPN shills like Dick Vitale and Bobby Knight spew outrage demanding the tournament be expanding. Coaches desperate to protect jobs demand the tournament be expanded; and smaller schools gunning for a chunk of money and sliver of fame demand the tournament be expanded. What else is new? Well this year the NCAA in a well publicized but largely stealth approach seriously is looking at expanding to maximize their own payout which finances all they do.

The tournament, the rite of March Madness has grown into a monstrous success. My colleagues are bubbling with brackets and teams to follow. My own team squeaked into the tournament by winning the PAC-10 tournament. I can't bet on NCAA tournament by NCAA rules,  but I can enjoy the excitement and satisfaction of watching extraordinary play. The NCAA tournament by design and luck has grown into a rather loony combination of great play, obsessive marketing, and occasional upsets. It rivets millions of Americans, gives exposure and rewards to many of the young players and coaches and has become an annual rite for American sports enthusiasts.The CBS website that many use to follow brackets has a special boss button to bring up a fake spread sheet. Last year it had 2.8 million hits.

347 schools make up division one basketball. The tournament lets in 65, awhile back it let in 36. Each year at this time of year ESPN and compatriots generate false controversies over who gets in and a few teams on the 'bubble" who do not get in. I like the word bubble which does yeoman work in American vocabulary describing inflated market phenomenon, things children blow and chase, now teams that don't live on the margins of the tournament. In fact a whole new pseudo-science, bracketology, abetted by media frenzy, has mushroomed up in the last decade. Commentators, personalities, media programs devote endless hours to speaking about RPI and teams who might or might now make it. The very exclusiveness of the tournament generates its own energy. The tournament gets added cachet by guaranteeing spots to the winners of the conferences which squares the NCAA with its constituent members, the conferences.

In a Greed is Good era clamor for expansion makes sense, but it makes no sense from an athletic point of view. This year a few imaginative commentators have made a "social justice" rationale to help funnel money to less well off teams by giving them spots in the tournament and the 200,000 plus that comes with the first game.  Right now the tournament already lets in almost 20 percent of the teams in the country. This barely makes sense but is defensible given the high quality of play and the need to accommodate the many conferences, 3,1 who have automatic bids. If the tournament went to 96 schools it would let in almost 30 percent of the schools. The NCAA would make the same mistake the NBA does, it would create a huge bloated and irrelevant tournament.

Right now the tournament proceeds in a fairly stately fashioning, a few upsets, not many, a few media chosen darlings as underdogs, but in reality the top seeds get to the top over 80 percent of the time. To flood the tournament with  more marginal teams, more lower seeds, more guaranteed loses, does nothing to increase the competition of the tournament and only dilutes the quality of the basketball and the worthiness of the reward.

The biggest set of problems, however, blow back onto the constituent elements of the NCAA, the conferences. Already for TV reasons many conferences have gone to tournaments at the end of the grueling seasons and given their automatic bids to the tournament winner rather than the far more important conference champion. The reality for the conferences and for most teams and coaches  is that games matter; conferences matter, conference championships are valued. Even with the devaluation implicit in the tournament winner going to the NCAA, most players and coaches and AD.s know that conference championships matter more and reveal more.

The relative scarcity, and I mean relative when you are talking 1 in 5, makes each game matter. The tournament aura reinforces the worth of the conference championship and conference games. The quality of the conference matters here and when you have a down year as the PAC-10 did, it should affect how many teams get to the tournament.(If there is any reason to expand the tournament it might be to guarantee conference champions a spot as well as tournament winners.)

Expanding the tournament goes along way to devaluing the quality of the season games just like what happens in the NBA. You think we would learn, but greed drives people to misread quality+scarcity=high value. They think by expanding the pool you can avoid the quality dilution and miss completely its impact on the rest of the season. The tournament should stay as it is.

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