Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ok, Maybe Just Urinating On Persistence Of Memory

I know Mondays are usually reserved for stories of visits to stadia past, I don't blame the five of you out there who read this regularly for being miffed that I'm taking a week off, but as I've said before there are only so many stories to fill the next three decades.

I'm going to take a week off once in a while to keep myself from running out of material. Particularly since I assume you're all distracted by that preview for tonight's Blackhawks-Predators game.

This week seemed like as opportune a moment as any to do so because I somehow neglected to discuss this particularly exciting news item from this past week. Yes, I had mentioned a few weeks ago my increasing angst over the NCAA's impending decision to expand the NCAA Tournament, with rumors flying high that the nearly perfect 64-team bracket would be forsaken in the name of a 96-team cacophony of increased revenues and confused office pools.

An expansion to 96 teams would have been awful for a number of reasons -- and I wasn't the only one who thought so -- but fortunately for anyone who loves college basketball or loves filling out their bracket according to which mascot they think is cutest, it won't be happening. Not immediately anyway. Instead the tourney will be expanding to a 68-team format, which is not ideal, but still the better option. And once again, I'm not the only one who thinks so. Of course, I already think the 65-team tournament we've been treated to since 2001 is a little silly anyway. While everyone adores the 64-team bracket, and rightfully so, the play-in game that pits the 64th and 65th teams in the field against one another is a worthless piece of television drudgery.

I don't think anyone bothers to watch what the NCAA calls the "Opening Round Game", and even fewer people think typical entrants like Coppin State or Morehead State have any chance of actually doing anything once they make it to the 64-team field. In fact, this game is so pointless that I'm fairly sure the only time I've watched it was when I was stuck in O'Hare airport my junior year of college. And I watch anything that can call itself a sport. Hell, as I write this, I'm staying up until 3 a.m. to watch and Aussie Rules Footy match between Geelong and Carlton FC.

And I was planning on it.

And yet, I've never been bothered to watch the Opening Round Game of the NCAA Tournament, and this expansion to 68 teams is likely to simply add three more such games -- one for each region -- to the mix. But I'm fine with this. I still think the play-in games are silly, and don't particularly plan on watching them, but the integrity of the rest of the tournament, which retains its basic structure, is still in place, and that is a massive sigh of relief to everyone from fans to reporters, who nearly universally disdained the idea of a 96-team setup.

Aside from avoiding the massive expansion, the new television contract negotiated by the NCAA also has one intriguing and overlooked benefit to its new deal. Lost in the discussion over the muted expansion is the fact that the NCAA's new 14-year $10.8 billion deal is not just with CBS, which has broadcast the NCAA Tournament since 1982, but also Turner Broadcasting System. This is, for the fans, an awesome development. Starting next year, the days of keeping CBS on the TV and hoping they might switch to the tight game that may make or break your bracket in the Dance's first round or being forced to watch out of market games on your computer will be long gone.

Instead, the first round will be broadcast on CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV. I haven't the slightest clue if I have truTV on my cable package, but I'm guess by next March I will. The benefit of this is obvious. Instead of waiting for the CBS control room to move its slow trigger finger, all 32 first-round games will be broadcast live across the four networks, meaning we can watch whatever game we damn well please. This might be the best development for college basketball fans since Dick Vitale.

What might even be more interesting is that starting in 2016 the National Championship Game will alternate between CBS and TBS, which must make this the first time the NCAA Men's Basketball National Championship Game hasn't been on basic network television -- a wild development in its own right.

Of course, we ought not to delude ourselves. For the NCAA, this whole deal is still about money. NCAA interim President Jim Isch stated in the press release announcing the deal that, “This is an important day for intercollegiate athletics and the 400,000 student-athletes who compete in NCAA sports... This agreement will provide on average more than $740 million annually to our conferences and member schools to help student-athletes in 23 sports learn and compete.” Now, if you do the math, were this contract actually distributed amongst those 400,000 athletes, each would receive $27,000 a piece, which isn't too shabby, but I'm guessing the vast majority of that money won't actually directly filter down to supporting the costs participating in college athletics. Someone's paying the piper. And someone's getting paid by the piper.

That said, the constrained expansion is a huge relief to most fans around the country, and on a personal note, I'm extremely relieved that making the tournament will still be an accomplishment. This was of particular importance to me because my alma mater, as I've noted before, is the only BCS school to never go dancing. Were the the tournament expanded to 96 teams, next season would likely spell the end to that drought -- Northwestern has made the NIT, which would likely be enveloped by the expansion, each of the last two seasons. However, making the Dance at long last would feel cheap to me if it came about only as part of an expanded field.

And guess what? The Northwestern players agree.

Or at least Kevin Coble does. Regardless, all of us can breath a deep sigh of relief, particularly if we pull for the Wildcats. Despite our worst fears, the integrity of college basketball's grandest event seems to be intact for at least one more year, with a major improvement to boot. The only negative that could come from this is if another Northwestern collapse drops them from the 2011 field and makes me wish we were, in fact in a 96-team Tournament so I could taste the Dance just once.

But hopefully that won't happen. Because if it does, I'll look like quite the hypocrite. 

And no one wants that.

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