Seven Off-The-Court Thoughts on the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Bracket
Bookmark this before the Flutie Effect thinkpieces start
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I’m going to be level with all of you right from the jump. This is not the kind of newsletter that is going to give you #hot #tips on how to beat Debbie from accounting in your bracket pool. It’s been about five years since I had to watch college basketball religiously for a job, and I simply haven’t watched enough games or crunched enough numbers to offer that type of advice. Besides, even when I did do stuff like that for a living, Debbie still usually beat me.
I have absolutely no idea who is going to win the Men’s NCAA Tournament. Or the Women’s NCAA Tournament. Or the NIT. Or any of the other tournaments out there.
But I do know enough about how this industry works to maybe offer some other useful March Madness insights.
Do I have 68 of them? No. This is a newsletter, not a textbook.
But I do have seven. I know that isn’t a great Bracket-type number, but I do want to keep this short enough to not get cut off in your inbox. And these seven thoughts will help you be a better consumer of #bracket #related #coverage.
Making the men’s tournament means big money
Unlike other NCAA postseason championships, teams that advance in the men’s basketball tournament earn special financial payouts. Each game a team plays in the tournament generates one “unit”, which is then paid out to that team’s conference over six years. Last year, those “units” paid out $338,887 a year, or a little over $2 million throughout the six-year payout.
The Big Ten and SEC each placed eight teams in the tournament this year, so even if every single one of those teams loses every one of their games, those leagues are looking at annual payouts of close to three million dollars. Once you stack those unit payouts across years, you can see how a league can pull in some serious money. Not ESPN football contract money, but big money. A league like the Mountain West, who earned four bids this season, could really benefit from a few of their teams winning a game or two, especially since that isn’t always a multi-bid league.
For mid and low-major leagues, a Cinderella Sweet 16 run can represent a massive windfall…the difference between playing four buy-games the next season, or two, or the difference between paying out Cost of Attendance awards or not.
But it also means big money in contract bonuses
Just about every Men’s basketball coach in the country will get a contract bonus if his team makes the NCAA Tournament. USA TODAY’s excellent Steve Berkowitz is the best resource for tracking these, and a quick scroll through his Twitter feed would teach you that many of these head coaches are pulling in between $20,000-$75,000 in contract incentives for winning conference titles and earning bids to the Tournament.
But coaches aren’t the only ones to earn bonuses for teams making the tournament. Athletic Directors commonly also earn bonuses for team postseason success. According to contracts I’ve obtained via Open Records Requests, Ohio State’s Gene Smith, for example, is due a $15,000 bonus for the Buckeye women making the NCAA Tournament. If the Buckeyes live up to their seed and make the Sweet 16, Smith will earn another $25,000. Kennesaw State AD Milton Overton is due $7,500, thanks to the Men’s squad making the NCAA Tournament.
Beyond bonuses due to athletic directors and assistant coaches, some schools may also earn additional contract incentives from their athletic apparel partners and other major commercial partners. These bonuses generally aren’t for massive amounts of money, but hey, $10,000 here, $5,000 there, and sooner or later, you’re talking about real money.
The players, of course, will earn direct bonuses of exactly zero dollars.
There’s no unit payout for the women’s tournament….yet
Based on the contracts I’ve inspected, athletic director bonuses are typically the same, or close to the same, for men’s and women’s basketball success. The same is typically true of athletic apparel incentive bonuses.
But when it comes to payouts from the NCAA…there is no equity. Only men’s basketball programs earn tournament payouts. This system has been criticized by the Knight Commission, the Kaplan Gender Equity Report, by conference commissioners, and current industry leaders. Working towards financial equity in the tournaments has been a talking point in the industry for as long as I’ve been writing Extra Points (since 2019), but no solution has been formally voted on or anything yet.
In a post-Transformation Committee world, and with the women’s basketball tournament becoming an increasingly important financial property, I expect this to change in the coming years. Will the money come out of a future TV contract, where the women’s tournament is sold independently? Will it come out of general NCAA funds? Out of the Men’s unit? Will other sports earn unit distributions as well?
It’s worth keeping an eye on.
Go easy on the Flutie Effect hype
You’re probably going to hear some references to the Flutie Effect this week, especially if a plucky low-major scores a major upset in the first round. The Flutie Effect, named after former Boston College QB Doug Flutie, tracks the relationship between unexpected athletic success and a slew of positive outcomes for universities, like increased applications and donor activity.
As best as I can tell, the Flutie Effect is a real thing. But the academic literature on the relationship is pretty mixed. How long the effect bonuses stick around, what kinds of students they impact, and how much more effective effect bonuses are compared to regular ol’ advertising…are in dispute.
The idea that a single unexpected March Madness run would lead to institution-changing fundraising, admissions, and goodwill…isn’t really the reality, and you ought to be very skeptical of any sports commentator or administrator telling you otherwise over the next few days.
On that note, go easy on the marketing hype too
If your school goes on an unexpected postseason run, they’ll almost certainly enjoy a spike in notoriety and exposure. More people are gonna Google your alma mater, they’re going to see your school’s name on the ESPN score bug, and general awareness is going to increase. That’s a good thing!
I remember back when Abilene Christian University knocked off Texas in the first round, school leadership claimed that their earned media exposure was worth $200 million. If there’s a similar upset this week, I’m certain other schools will make similar claims.
Here’s the thing though. Exposure doesn’t pay for plane tickets, athlete meals, or staffer salaries. Money does that, and marketing exposure is really only super useful if it leads to money. Since the NCAA Tournament are events that appeal to a massive American audience, much of any marketing bonus is going to be about getting your school’s name in front of people that will never, ever, spend a dollar on your campus.
I wrote about this back in 2021, but consider this hypothetical:
The same principle applies here with basketball upsets. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely some benefit from a spike in awareness and national exposure, and that spike may very well lead to a temporary boost in fundraising, application interest, and applicant quality. But it’s probably a safe assumption to say that the real value of that exposure won’t quite match the eye-popping number that will grab a headline in a school’s alumni magazine in a few weeks.
Surprise! The NIT isn’t a cash cow
Some AD and coach contracts still give out bonuses for making the NIT. After all, for low and mid-majors, an NIT bid probably means your team won your regular season conference title, no small accomplishment. Teams from outside the power leagues go on deep NIT runs fairly often. St. Bonaventure made the NIT Final Four last year, after all. The year before that Memphis won the whole dang thing, and Colorado State and Louisiana Tech made the Final Four.
But it doesn’t carry the same prestige or financial reward for power league teams. Sometimes, they flat-out skip the thing. After being the first preseason #1 team to miss the NCAA Tournament since 1985, UNC announced they weren’t going to play in the NIT hours before the bracket came out. LSU did the same thing back in 2016. Indiana once refused to play a home game during the tournament for stupid, Indiana-related reasons.
For very young teams, there may be some value in playing more games together and competing. But given the recruiting calendar changes and financial realities around the tournament, it’s not shocking to see other teams decide that it really isn’t worth the trouble.
Not all underdog stories are quite the same
I don’t typically like to tell people how to fan, but allow me to hop on a soapbox here and offer this. Not all college sports underdog stories are the same.
The true platonic ideal of the March Madness Cinderella should not be the tiny Jesuit college with $85,000 a year tuition. Sure, it’s unlikely and impressive that a campus where every student got a 34 on their ACT could beat a massive Land-Grant in basketball…but then athletes will then graduate and enjoy virtually every other advantage that American society has to offer. It is structurally impossible for any story that involves Princeton to be an underdog story. I don’t care what the seedline says or what the athletic department budgets say.
The true ideal of the March Madness Cinderella is the HBCU, the urban commuter college, the forgotten regional public school. You can keep Princeton and Colgate. Give me Saint Peters, give me Cleveland State, give me Southeast Cleetus A&M.
By this metric, I believe the least likable first-round matchup in the Men’s Tournament is Virginia vs Furman, a contest where the combined sticker price for tuition is a staggering $106,998, a mark that just edges the combined total for Duke and Oral Roberts, or Texas and Colgate.
So root for whoever you want. I generally root for the lowest seed, because I don’t care about being right on a bracket and I think chaos makes for compelling television.
But am I gonna cry if Arizona beats Princeton in the first round? No, dear reader, I will not.
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