• Extra Points
  • Posts
  • An egalitarian NCAA Tournament is worth fighting for

An egalitarian NCAA Tournament is worth fighting for

Sure, expand the field a little bit. But removing auto-qualifiers would be the final gasp of the romance of college sports

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Before we get to this morning’s missive, a quick word from a sponsor of today’s newsletter, Defector:

Defector is a worker-owned, subscription-based website. What does that mean in practice? It means that our subscribers pay us to deliver them ~50 interesting blogs each week. It also means that we publish annual reports showing where those hard-earned dollars go. (They do not go to six-figure bonuses for C-Suite bozos who capriciously shutter newsrooms and pivot beloved publications to AI slop.) Last call, if this sounds like your kinda thing: For just the next 24 hours, you can try Defector for just $1 by entering promo code XP here.

The bracket for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament was released last night, and you might expect, it made plenty of people angry.

The Big East somehow only got three teams in the field, fewer than a particularly languid Big Ten. The Mountain West saw virtually all of their teams knocked a seed line or two under their expectations. America will be deprived of a chance to see “Cream Abdul-Jabbar” and the Indiana State Sycamores, because they and their 29 NET rating were judged to be not good enough to warrant selection.

Figuring out how to seed 68 teams is hard, even with NET and KenPom and an ocean of spreadsheets. This was a particularly challenging year, thanks to a glut of quality teams around the proverbial cutoff line, and a number of upsets in conference tournaments.

There’s a potential solution to this problem, albeit one deeply unpopular with the public. Expand the field.

The idea has been talked about a lot over the past few days, but it isn’t new. I was writing about it back back in 2022, and so were other college sports industry people. Others in college sports have discussed expanding the field beyond 68 shortly after the bracket grew from 64 teams back in 2011.

I’ll even deviate from many of my sportswriting peers here…I actually think it could be a perfectly fine idea.

After all, a 64 (or 68) team bracket was not etched on the stone tablets that Moses carried from the mountaintop. The tournament field has always been a fluid number, as have the fields for other NCAA postseason events. When the NCAA moved to a 64-team field back in 1985, there were only 282 schools competing in D-I. Now there are 362…and between us friends, there’s a pretty good chance that number grows to 364 or 365 in a year or so. If you want to limit the tournament to ~20% of D-I membership, that would mean a modest increase to around 72 teams.

That’d still be a pretty selective event.

An expanded field could also potentially improve regular season scheduling for ambitious mid-majors. One of the reasons great teams like Indiana State, Princeton, or Bradley aren’t in the NCAA Tournament is because nobody will play them, which makes it difficult to assemble a quality enough schedule to warrant consideration.

An expanded field, if combined with tweaks to the NET, could create more incentives (or at least, lessen the penalties) for playing competitive non-P5 programs out of conference, which in turn would make it easier for great MVC, A-10, WCC, etc teams to “earn” their way into the field while also creating better regular season inventory for fans and schools.

But realistically, a bigger field probably benefits power schools even more. And that’s why the loudest voices for expansion right now aren’t from Conference USA or the WAC but the SEC and Big 12.

I get it. Those are large, powerful, deep leagues. The 9th best team in the Big 12 or SEC, most years, will be talented enough to beat most teams on any particular given night. Pushing for more seats at the table is effective advocacy for your conference constituents.

But this quote, from an ESPN story on March 15, should worry everybody:

In a recent phone interview, Sankey acknowledged the tournament is one of the few things that bonds the disparate world of Division I together. "Nothing remains static," he told ESPN. "I think we have to think about the dynamics around Division I and the tournament."

He added that recent runs by UCLA from the First Four to the Final Four in 2021 and Syracuse's run to the round of 16 beginning with a play-in game in Dayton in 2018 show the caliber of power-conference teams on the fringe of the NCAA tournament.

"That just tells you that the bandwidth inside the top 50 is highly competitive," Sankey said. "We are giving away highly competitive opportunities for automatic qualifiers [from smaller leagues], and I think that pressure is going to rise as we have more competitive basketball leagues at the top end because of expansion."

Asked if it is important to him to protect access to the NCAA Tournament for those mid-major automatic qualifiers, the underdogs who’ve made it one of the most widely loved sporting events in the world, Sankey said: “I think that’s part of the review. I don’t make a prediction. I’ve never thought dialogue was unhealthy. I think dialogue is healthy. So we’ll see what ideas come out, whenever they come out. I’m in no particular hurry.”

Elsewhere in the Athletic interview, Sankey said that “The first time I made a comment, within two minutes, people said, ‘That’s the worst ideawell, that’s actually not an intellectual exercise. I hope there’s some effort to think through things.”

So in that spirit, let me try to meet him halfway here.

It does make sense for there to be a larger dialogue about the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, not just the bracket size and configuration, but how the teams are selected. We’re entering the Super-Conference era, and adjustments will likely need to be made to prevent non-P5 teams from being locked out of December games, the computers spitting out nonsense as they try to make sense of an 18-team Big Ten, and to make sure that the selection criteria remains at least kinda fair.

We also ought to recognize the reality that Sankey and others are dancing around a bit euphemistically. The largest conferences are all facing massive cost increases in the near future, from House settlement payments to likely revenue sharing to potential additional legal challenges. More than ever, there’s a new incentive for the leagues with the most power and influence to capture more of the money. You saw the SEC and Big Ten throw their weight around with the CFP, and the biggest leagues are doing it again here.

There are limits to how much the NCAA field can expand. Arenas and hotels are already booked years in advance, and there are only so many broadcast windows, and broadcast dollars, to go around. If CBS is interested in throwing a gazillion dollars to Indianapolis for the privilege of broadcasting more Seton Hall vs Kansas State, they’re doing a good job of hiding it.

So I understand all of that, and I understand that’s why the SEC would float the idea that maaaaybe the NCAA Tournament doesn’t have room for all the Colgates and Wagners and Longwoods of the world.

So I get it. But after considering that point of view, allow me to respectfully retort.

I think that shit sucks.

The only connective tissue across the increasingly disparate NCAA D-I membership is access to the college basketball tournaments. It isn’t a shared definition of “amateurism”, or similar principles about the role of athletics and higher education. It isn’t competitive parity, a unified vision, geography, history, or anything else. As college sports marches further and further towards explicit professionalization and a homogenized NFL-ization that paves over the inefficiencies that make this enterprise unique, an egalitarian postseason event stands alone.

This is the line worth defending, even more than employee status or antitrust exposure or anything else an NCAA lobbyist solemnly declares in a Sports Business Journal op-ed. This is the guiding principle you circle, underline and bold before you start whatever ‘dialogue’ between power brokers.

The D-I college basketball tournaments are the most accessible postseason event to casual American sports fans, period. It isn’t because casual sports fans understand each individual rivalry, or because they can appreciate the nuance of a well-executed Princeton Offense.

It’s because the meritocratic beauty of the bracket lines up perfectly with the mythos of the American Dream. That with enough talent and pluck, the David can defeat Goliath. The Buff Future Dentists can defeat the Future NBA All-Stars. The Sons Of Toil can defeat Whoever Gets To Go To Yale and Duke.

If you legislate away automatic qualification for conference champions, even if you do it to just a handful of leagues, you immediately undercut the exact thing that makes the tournament special. The second you tell the NEC champion that they aren’t good enough, aren’t rich enough, don’t deliver enough Nielsen-rated TV sets, you turn the NCAA Tournament into Just Another Multi-Team Event. A Maui Invitational that more people gamble over.

In the short term, that may very well generate more revenue for the SEC and Big 12. Perhaps sportswriters will howl and protest, and fans will complain on Twitter, and then the spreadsheets will come back, and it turns out that 650,000 more people watched the event because USC played Oklahoma while Marist and Eastern Washington were banished to the CIT, CBI or OMGBBQ.

But in the long run, after Greg Sankey retires and the other Power commissioners leave for jobs in professional sports, consulting or high finance, the event will be worse off. It will not capture the same magic for fans, which means it won’t capture the same appeal for #brands and broadcast partners. It will mean college basketball will be held in even less esteem by elite prospects, who will increasingly abandon the system.

Just because something appears all-powerful and popular in the sporting world doesn’t mean it will forever. Just look at boxing. Or horse racing. Or hell, baseball.

Make enough boneheaded decisions and compromise what made you interesting in the first place, and people will eventually learn to watch something else.

The problems that Sankey and others allude to are real. They are problems that deserve a healthy dialogue, and if administrators approach them with good faith, I think they’re solvable problems. How to rank teams, share money, pick teams and arrange a postseason basketball tournament is, in many ways, a math problem. There are lots of people on college campuses who are good at math problems.

But you can’t fix greed with “dialogue.” And if greed—for money, for power, for control—is what ends up really driving these conversations, the end result is not going to be positive.

I’m only a casual college basketball fan, but you better believe I’m going to watch the men’s tournament this week. Not just to watch UConn and UNC, but to check out Grand Canyon and UC Irvine and Howard.

While I still can.

This edition of Extra Points is brought to you in part by Athliance:

Experience seamless NIL management with PointGuard by Athliance – the only API-driven solution that fully integrates automatic disclosures from Marketplaces, Collectives, Agencies, and Athletes. Gain complete visibility and control, ensuring compliance across any platform you choose to work with. Learn more about how Athliance can make your NIL management easier and book a demo here:

If you’d like to buy ads on Extra Points OR in ADS4000, good news! We have open inventory in April. Drop me a line at [email protected]. If you have news tips or FOIAs you want to share, I’m at [email protected]. Otherwise, I’m at [email protected], @MattBrownEP on Twitter, @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram, and @MattBrown on Bluesky. We’re also now on Facebook! 

Join the conversation

or to participate.