What Could’ve Saved Us From 96 Team Madness

Jay Christiansen at TheWizardofOdds.com links a story Friday that quietly uncovers one of the main reasons for the insane expansion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament from 64 to 96 teams. The story is about the Cal athletic department, but before you roll your eyes, read on.

Robert Birgeneau Cal President Demands Athletic Dept. Accountability

(Meet the soon to be most-hated man in women’s college sports history)

Nanette Asimov of the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE reports this week that UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau made what will soon be a wildly unpopular but perfectly justified decision to demand that the Cal athletic department stop losing money.

Birgeneau also set a deadline, asking Cal’s “money-losing Department of Intercollegiate Athletics for solutions by June on getting it to solvency.

One small problem with that idea. Getting most major university athletic departments to solvency would mean dropping virtually all the sports programs. Besides football and men’s basketball, what sport at Cal or any major school is actually solvent? With few exceptions, there aren’t any. Welcome to reality.

The vast majority of NCAA sports gush red ink, which is certainly related to why the NCAA is currently in a desperate bid for a cash infusion via the expansion of the NCAA Tournament from 64 to 96 teams.

The extra dollars raised by the expansion of the March Madness field will go to being able to continue to stage an eye-popping 87 NCAA Championships per year. That’s precisely why the NCAA Board of Directors is increasing the men’s basketball tournament field - despite what the governing body may tell the public.

Those additional monies though will not go directly to any schools, who have their own problems with massive shortfalls. Those shortfalls are precisely the reason you are now seeing rampant talk of conference expansion and possible super conferences.

The extraordinary debt incurred by second division schools in BCS conferences because of overextended athletic departments cannot be sustained. But a conference expansion means more television and bowl game revenue generated to prop up the dreg schools unable to compete on the field and at the gate. Though eventually that Ponzi scheme will run dry too.

Ironic that Cal is taking the first step of any major school in demanding financial accountability of its athletic dept., considering that the university is the flagship state school of the UC system. But with the California economy in ashes, university officials and donors understand that public subsidies for athletics are now, effectively extinct.

While some individual schools might be able to sustain lopsided athletic dept. budgets through increased student fees and donations, most can’t.

Major college sports is in much the same situation the NHL was in before its last work stoppage. The business model of the  NHL was broken because there wasn’t sufficient revenues to account for large salary payouts to players. In the case of Cal, those player payouts and expenses are scholarships and the cost of operating a Pac-10 conference sports program.

Again, some schools can probably afford to lose money to eternity thanks to donors. But the NCAA, because of the monster it has created, isn’t in a position to leave any school behind. Especially the second-division BCS conference schools. The NCAA needs those schools as constant fodder to maintain the credibility of sports properties that net innumberable millions from television networks and school donors.

No one wants to see schools have to cut back on sports and athletic scholarships, but the reality is that eventually, it will happen. Meantime, by expanding the NCAA Tournament from 64 to 96 teams to cover future costs of staging a ridiculous number of yearly championships, the NCAA is killing its golden goose in what is obviously a futile bid to support what is a broken system.

From Asimov’s Chronicle Piece:

“This is meant to be a come-to-Jesus moment for athletics, in which (the department) realizes that it needs to make difficult choices to stay within a sustainable level of resources,” said law professor and panelist Christopher Kutz, chairman of UC Berkeley’s Academic Senate of tenured instructors.

What we’re witnessing with the needless March Madness expansion to 96 teams is the NCAA Tournament dying for the sins of overextended athletic departments wrought by the egos of university presidents, conference commissioners, athletic directors and well-meaning social scientists.

The suffering officially begins April 29, 2010.