Bob Lutz

Don't be fooled, expansion is all about the money

I would have respected NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen more if he had just come out Thursday and told reporters what they already know: That the idea behind expanding the NCAA Tournament field from 65 to 96 teams is about money and lots of it.

Wouldn't it be refreshing for one of these suits to stand up and be honest? Instead, Shaheen, nothing more than a pulley in the intricate NCAA machine of deception and confusion, spent hundreds of words trying to convince people that expansion is virtuous and that those of us who are against it will not go to heaven.

Not in those words, exactly, but that was the gist.

Shaheen is in the impossible position of trying to sell a block of ice to an Eskimo. Except that he doesn't really have to sell anything. The NCAA just does, and the rest of us aren't even supposed to ask why. When we do ask why, we get a lot of words but very little meaning. Shaheen sounded like an expert during his speech and follow-up question-and-answer session. Then you go back and read what he said and realize it's just blather.

While college football fans from sea to shining sea cry out for a playoff system for a sport that really is broken, the NCAA instead wants to fix the most perfect sporting event this country has ever seen.

And we're supposed to simply nod and go along with this March Madness, like ducklings following their mother.

Two interesting national semifinals are set to be played today in Indianapolis, the home of the NCAA. Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia and Duke have reached the Final Four while the 61 other teams that made up the field are at home.

When the 65-team field was announced 20 days ago, there were some disappointed teams and fans. But was there a strong cry to expand the tournament to 96 teams? I didn't hear it.

Essentially, the 32 teams that make up the field for the NIT, including Wichita State this season, would be a part of the expanded NCAA Tournament field. The top 32 seeds in the tournament would receive first-round byes. And while the tournament would still encompass three weeks, more games would be required — especially during the second week of the tournament.

The NCAA has been considering this expansion for some time because there is an opt-out in its television contract with CBS after the 2010 tournament concludes. CBS claims to be losing money on the deal, which it originally paid $6 billion for over 11 years, and the NCAA thinks it can make that problem disappear by offering more programming to the network that comes up with the highest bid.

The possible expansion of the tournament is not about coaches, although there is a group who believe an expanded tournament will create more job security. It's not about players, who will be asked to miss more time in the classroom at a time when the NCAA is emphasizing academics and threatening to sanction schools that don't meet guidelines.

It's definitely not about fans, who love the tournament the way it is. The current format — outside of the ridiculous play-in game played on the Tuesday before the start of the tournament — is easy to understand and fits perfectly with our bracket-obsessed society.

It's about money, plain and simple. It's about putting more games on television and generating more ad revenue so that network executives have a bottom line they can present to their board of directors without fear of having their heads chopped off.

That's the world in which we live. Capitalism has run amok.

Yet we have the nonsensical Bowl Championship Series system that nobody understands but nonetheless is used to determine a college football national champion. Nobody from the NCAA is addressing the reasons why a playoff isn't instituted in that sport.

There is an alarming disconnect in the ways the NCAA handles its two mainstream sports. One is perfect, yet might well undergo a massive change. The other is imperfect, but only the country's 200 million-or-so college football fans seem to care.

It's madness, all right. True madness.

Shaheen made it a point to say nothing had been decided for sure and that the current 65-team NCAA Tournament field might remain. But the NCAA is doing more than testing the waters with the proposal of a 96-team field, even though it would decrease the importance of college basketball's regular season and make conference tournaments — at least for the power conferences — more meaningless than they already are.

Even so, do you think for a second any of those conferences would discontinue their tournaments? No way, because there is money to be made from fans who just want to cheer for their teams and don't care for a second that the games are pointless.

That's the pervasive way of thinking in college athletics today. The NCAA has its annual basketball party and wants to expand the guest list. Yes, that will lead to more riff-raff. But the riff-raff serves a purpose. In the NCAA's world, the more the merrier and the merrier the more profitable.