CBS Source: 96-Team Tournament “Will Happen”

On Feb. 3, 2009, I reported that the NCAA basketball tournament field would be expanded to 96 teams, with the change likely to take effect in 2011.

March Madness Brackets Torn To Shreds

(Consolation: You already tore it up yesterday anyway)

In the past week I’ve learned from a CBS source that the NCAA has privately informed its current March Madness television partner that 96 teams “will happen.” The change will likely take effect beginning next season. 2012 at the latest.

CBS is in the eighth year of an 11-year, $6 billion contract to broadcast the tournament, but, as SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL reports, the NCAA can opt out of the deal this year if it does so before August 31.

The NCAA basketball tournament’s “unofficial czar“, senior VP of basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen, said on March 9:

Contrary to what you’ve read on various blogs and the like, there’s nothing that’s a done deal or decided at this point in time. We’re full steam ahead with our agreement with CBS through 2013.

On the same day, CBS Sports President Sean McManus said:

Our plan is to carry the NCAA Tournament on CBS as long as we can. We’re focused right now on this year and not on next year. As far as expansion of the tournament is concerned, that’s something that Greg Shaheen would address. We really are focused on this year’s tournament. I don’t like to think about anything but this year’s tournament right now.

I think we have a history at CBS of keeping the events that we want to keep on our network. We’ve always done a good job of renewing the rights, and I would like to think that would follow through to the NCAA Tournament.

When we have an event that we like on CBS Sports, I think the track record’s pretty good about figuring out a way - whether it’s the NFL, or SEC football, or the Masters, or the PGA Championship, or U.S. Open Tennis. We’ve been pretty successful at keeping those marquee events where I think they belong, which is on CBS.

McManus didn’t sound as confident about a future arrangement between the parties as the NCAA’s Shaheen did. Though McManus didn’t want talk about tournament field expansion to overshadow his network’s 2010 coverage of March Madness. Especially considering that the expanded tournament might not involve CBS.

If the NCAA does exercise its escape clause with CBS, other networks will try to acquire the rights. (I’ve been told the NCAA has already had detailed discussions with ESPN about it.) Though my CBS source said the network is determined not to lose its flagship sports property, the measure of that determination will be counted in millions in increased rights fees.

While everyone knows money is behind 96, some may be unaware of just exactly who is driving the change.A high-ranking administrator at a Pac-10 school told me this week that though there is sharp division of opinion on the subject of field expansion among NCAA coaches, athletic directors and league commissioners, there’s near-unanimous sentiment from university presidents to increase the size of the field.

NCAA Division I Board of Directors Determine NCAA Fate

As noted here last month, the NCAA Board of Directors, which is made up of  university presidents, will ultimately decide the size of the NCAA Tournament field. The next board meeting on the subject is in Indianapolis on April 29.

With the 2010 NCAA Tournament soon to be out of the way, I expect the NCAA to be more forthcoming on its intentions. Intentions that I can confirm will soon include a 96-team NCAA men’s basketball tournament field.