Sports: The March Madness auto-bids debate: Killing Cinderella would be a losing strategy all around

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There have been a handful of conference championships and two NCAA Tournament appearances from FGCU since we all were introduced to “Dunk City” back in 2013. So it would be inaccurate, perhaps even mean, to say that nothing of basketball consequence has come from Florida Gulf Coast University since that delirious march through March nearly a decade ago.

  The March Madness auto-bids debate: Killing Cinderella would be a losing strategy all around © Provided by Sporting News

It is fair to say the needle has not been moving lately. About the only news the school has made since its most recent NCAA berth, in 2017, was to dismiss head coach Michael Fly following a 22-win season. So maybe this isn’t the place we should be searching for guidance on what the future of March Madness might be.

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When someone makes the sort of declaration, though, that FGCU president Michael Martin presented last week to Fort Myers television station WINK, it’s at least worth our attention.

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

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Analyst Jeff Goodman of The Field of 68 podcast network reported earlier that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey had suggested to a meeting of the NCAA Division I Council that the tournament might not look the same in a few years.

So the fear is out there.

And fear is a fair word, because March Madness is the single best item in American sports. It’s not bigger than the Super Bowl, but it’s better. It is bigger than the championships of many long-established professional sports, and better than them, too. It is different than all the major events because of the diversity of entrants and the disparities among them.

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And that “Cinderella” factor is “the secret sauce,” one former NCAA men’s basketball committee member told me Wednesday, that makes the event so lucrative.


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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.

The auto bid concept has helped make the NCAA Tournament worth $870 million each year in network revenue, before anyone sells a ticket or a hospitality package or a hot dog. That’s basically a billion dollars for three weeks of basketball, the majority of which is returned by the NCAA to member institutions. Starting in 2025 and running through the end of the contract in 2032, that number will rise to $1.1 billion.

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Yes, March Madness fans very much love a Final Four with Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and Villanova. They also revel in the possibility of a Saint Peter’s knocking out heavyweights Kentucky and Purdue and reaching an Elite Eight, or No. 16 seed UMBC taking out No. 1 overall seed Virginia.

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Think a Saint Peter’s run doesn’t matter? OK, then explain why the Peacocks’ Elite Eight game against North Carolina was the most watched regional final game this year, attracted the largest audience of any basketball game outside the Final Four, even outdrew multiple NBA Finals games.

It can be argued the tournament is worth more than it’s receiving now, more than it will until 2032, given what we are seeing reported relative to broadcast negotiations with the Big Ten Conference. That might especially be true in the streaming space.

But it’s absurd to suggest there is any replacement championship apparatus, particularly one oriented entirely toward the most powerful conferences, that is likely to make them more money. And it’s not out of the question to say if anyone were to threaten the current operation, it could find itself in trouble with the U.S. Congress. If you think they might not get involved, you’re not aware of the past activities of current senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Chris Murphy of Connecticut regarding Name/Image/Likeness rights for athletes, or the work of the late senator Orrin Hatch against the Bowl Championship Series.

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It is not impossible the event could be tweaked in the future. There are concerns among power teams entering bigger conferences regarding what their access might be to the tournament. In the 16-team Big East, which lasted from 2005-12, members averaged eight bids a year. And the past two editions of the 14-team Big Ten produced nine bids each year, and 2020 might have been a 10-bid season if COVID-19 hadn’t wrecked that March. So this particular case of buyers’ remorse might be premature. They’re still going to want to see it before they believe it, though, and it’s possible they won’t be willing to wait that long.

What would a reimagined NCAA Tournament look like if each Division I league still was granted an automatic bid? The field could be bigger. Adding four or eight teams to the current “First Four” would damage the competitive tension of the regular season, but one or the other (preferably as few teams as possible) might sate the demands of the most powerful conferences to gain proportionate involvement.

That’s one thing you’ll rarely hear about March Madness. There are persistent complaints from mid-major programs about being restricted to one-bid status, but the truth has been their leagues are guaranteed to fill 1/3 of the tournament field before anyone bounces a ball. And they don’t actually have a third of the best teams. They help make the tournament special, but it'd be just fine if they backed off the rhetoric about not getting a square deal.

The power programs are wondering if there's more room for them, and it would not surprise if they push for more teams, or more money, or both.

It’s less likely the structure of the tournament will be dramatically altered. Everything that’s been done relative to conference realignment over the past two decades has featured, at the core, the pursuit of greater revenues. It’s about more money. And in most cases, it has worked. Destroying March Madness is likely to generate more anger than cash.

Remember when the NCAA pondered acceptance of ESPN’s offer to pay more than $700 million a year for March Madness – as long as it grew to 96 teams? The people making these decisions, at least for now, still do. Bigger isn’t always better. Better is better, and worth more money in the end.

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