Talk is heating up to expand the NCAA Tournament from 65 teams to 96. The concept is simple: Milk more money from the NCAA Tournament and, at the same time, sell the public on the notion that this is good for fans and, more importantly, its student-athletes. Sure, this will generate additional revenue for the NCAA and its members. In the short run. In the long run, one of the most valuable sports properties will be cheapened by flooding the market with mediocrity.
The NCAA might want to study Econ101: Scarcity is gold. Literally. Intense product demand coupled with limited supply is a proven business model. Great Moments in Capitalism are sprinkled with examples: Cabbage Patch Kids, American Girl dolls, iPhones. More instructive is the housing market. When the market is tight and demand is high, boom. When the reverse is true, bust.
Walt Disney once said: “Always leave them wanting more.” Ironic that ESPN, a Disney company, is the network most likely to offer the most billions for the expanded tourney.
Stephen Colbert once famously said, “The NCAA basketball tournament has everything I like: corporate sponsorship, unpaid labor and blind partisan allegiance.” This might be scathingly funny, but there’s a deeper understanding into what makes the NCAA Tournament so successful. At what point will fans tune out?
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told ESPN.com: “If we expand it, you get rid of the end-of-season tournaments, and I’d rather have the end-of-season tournaments. It’s a celebration of each conference. I don’t think we need to expand at all. To keep expanding it would dilute what we already have, and what we have is a great product right now.”
The Sporting News’ senior college-basketball writer Mike DeCourcy was surprised that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey supports expansion: “Taken to its logical conclusion, Brey’s argument that more kids should get an opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament would tear down the walls between intercollegiate athletics and intramurals. Why should Luke Harangody get the experience of playing college basketball and Mike DeCourcy does not? Because Harangody is better at it? Absolutely.”
Will Leitch, editor emeritus at Deadspin, sees this as fait accompli: “(Expansion) would be terrible, terrible, terrible. But you watch: They’re gonna try it. Never underestimate the NCAA’s capacity to make the wrong decision, every time.”
Here’s hoping it’s a new day at the NCAA.