March Madness as we know it may become a thing of the past

Seismic changes in the college landscape, from player compensation to conference realignment, may soon bring related changes to NCAA athletics — especially the men's basketball tournament.



March 19, 2024 - 1:45 PM

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images/TNS

Tracking the changes upending college sports can be as frenetic as flipping between all the games going down over the first week of March Madness. Ultimately, those changes could impact what America’s favorite basketball tournament looks like in the future — or whether it exists at all.

News about “pay for play” in college sports gushes from a veritable firehose these days. Whether it’s the Dartmouth basketball team looking to unionize, a judge undercutting the NCAA’s ability to regulate payments to athletes or yet another bout of conference realignment, the stakes are clear: Everything in college sports is open for discussion, interpretation and adjustment.

That includes the industry’s most hallowed tradition, the NCAA basketball tournaments, which begin this week and will stretch from coast to coast. The bottom line behind it all is money.

“There’s no pretense anymore,” said Rick Pitino, the St. John’s coach who recently made news by proposing a salary cap and a two-year contract for players who negotiate name, image and likeness sponsorships. “Now we’re dealing with professional athletes in the guise of NIL. I’ve tried to think of solutions and ways around it. But any solutions, the courts will just obliterate it.”

Pitino sees the courts reshaping and redefining college sports in much more aggressive fashion than what he describes as a largely hapless NCAA, an organization he has tangled with repeatedly over the years.

The coach also recognizes the irony of basketball being inextricably linked to the future of football, where revenue from media, ticket sales and other areas dwarf those in basketball, even with its March Madness TV deal worth around $900 million a year. Virtually all the biggest decisions in college sports stem from the biggest conferences in football trying to squeeze more money out of TV rights, whether through an expanded playoff or realignment or maybe even an expanded basketball tournament.

The four remaining mega-conferences – the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern — have even floated the idea of breaking the football operation off from the NCAA in a move that some believe could ultimately dictate the future of March Madness.

ESPNs Jay Bilas says revenue sharing with college athletes may become a reality.Photo by TNS file photo

Future of March Madness

Jay Bilas, the former Duke player who works for ESPN and has long criticized the NCAA for exploiting athletes, said today’s trends — more money and players grabbing a larger slice of it — could suggest a future in which players partake in revenue-sharing arrangements from the actual events they star in.

“That would, I think, make it a necessity that the NCAA do the same thing” with March Madness, Bilas said. “And with the NCAA Tournament now, if they choose not to do that and it continues to to be as it is, maybe it could get challenged.”

The most likely short-term shift appears to be expanding the tournament from its current 68 teams to somewhere between 76 and 80 – a concept that can only gain steam after an unpredictable set of conference tournament results dramatically shrunk the bubble and left a number of power-conference teams out of the draw.

The goal would be to appease the larger conferences that want more spots for their teams, which could presumably mean more revenue for them. Uncertain is whether that would significantly grow the TV contract. Mixed up somewhere in that calculation is the reality that the tournament wouldn’t be what it is without the likes of George Mason, Saint Peter’s and FAU — underdog programs from conferences that don’t have much heft in the overall decision-making process.

“What makes March Madness is that Cinderella can come to the ball,” Pitino said. “I don’t think they should ever be excluded from that.”

Pitino sounds confident that the NCAA knows enough not to mess up that part of the equation.

Far different landscape for college athletics

The changes might be best portrayed on a casual stroll through any Division I athletic facility’s parking lot. Not even a decade ago, the sight of a big-name athlete rolling through campus with a fancy car would send a jolt that reverberated for miles – from the school’s athletic department to the phones of the local beat reporters, all the way to the NCAA compliance office.

These days, nobody thinks twice about that. Everyone from Rickea Jackson (Tennessee) to Nijel Pack (Miami) to the entire Utah basketball and gymnastics teams have well-publicized endorsement deals with car companies.