Is the NCAA really greedy enough to push mid-majors out of March Madness?

Conference realignment gripped the entire college sports world by storm a few months ago when – seemingly out of nowhere – USC and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 and joining the Big Ten starting in 2024.

While many felt that would be the first in a series of realignment moves which would ultimately reshape college sports forever, so far nothing else has happened. Notre Dame is still independent. Oregon and Washington are still in the Pac-12. The Pac-12 still exists. Gonzaga is still in the WCC.

That’s not to say more changes aren’t coming, but it’s a nice reminder when stories like the one from WINK News a few days ago, where Florida Gulf Coast University President Mike Martin made a bold claim:

“March Madness will become much more controlled by a handful of schools,” Martin said. “And automatic qualifiers that we now get from being in the A-Sun will disappear.”

This concern is hardly coming from just Martin, as a recent report from Pat Forde indicated SEC commissioner Greg Sankey wants the NCAA to explore changes to the tournament, including potential expansion.

Fortunately, others in the industry believe this fear is unfounded, or at the very least premature.

Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News spoke to a former NCAA men’s basketball committee member on Wednesday who told him the “Cinderella” factor is “the secret sauce” that makes the event so lucrative, a sentiment that anyone who watches the sport – committee member or not – could have reasonably concluded.

With no disrespect to the grind that Power-5 programs go through on a yearly basis, fans would rather see programs like Florida Gulf Coast, or Saint Peter’s, or UMBC, or George Mason, go on a run or pull off a big upset instead of a ninth place Big Ten school with a 15-16 record who just lost in the first round of the conference tournament.

The joy of the event for many is seeing the underdogs rise to the challenge. Yes, that 15-16 Big Ten program has a better squad than UMBC or St. Peter’s. No one is (necessarily) arguing that. But seeing a small program pull off a major upset is far more satisfying than seeing a big school that had a down year happen to pull off a win against a similarly sized program in the first round. Outside of Northwestern fans, is a Northwestern victory over Kentucky going to have the same feel as Saint Peter’s? Of course not.

Fortunately, it seems that many others feel the same way, again according to DeCourcy:

The smart people in college athletics know it’d be ridiculous to mess with the automatic bid process, which grants a berth in March Madness to the champion of each Division I league, of which there are 32. There is a lot of fatalism inside college athletics about the eventual ruination of this grand event, but there isn’t much to support this.

Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News

The NCAA Tournament is worth a crisp $870 million each year in network revenue – and that’s before factoring in ticket sales and concessions. Effectively it’s a billion dollar industry by itself, over just a three week period of hoops.

Would messing with the fan appeal (and therefore the watchability) of a sporting event generating that kind of money be worth it to get a few more big schools into the event?

That’s the million (or billion) dollar question, and while it’s hard not to be a little weary considering how much college sports has transparently become financially-driven, it does seem unlikely the event will undergo any major changes.

At least not yet.

One thought on “Is the NCAA really greedy enough to push mid-majors out of March Madness?

Leave a Reply