NCAA Tournament Expansion Hated By Fans, Inevitable

basketball-swishFamily friend Jim Burton, a colleague of my wife’s, points to a new poll showing overwhelming public opposition to expansion of the NCAA basketball tournament.

In a survey released yesterday by Public Opinion Strategies, a solid majority (59%) of basketball fans oppose expanding the NCAA tournament from a 64 team tournament to a 96 team tournament. Just 29% of college basketball fans support expansion and ten percent are undecided.

The survey was conducted April 11-13 among 800 likely 2010 voters and 40% of those interviewed identified themselves as college basketball fans.

Among all voters, the results are 20% total favor/46% total oppose. College basketball fans feel strongly about the proposal because intensity is twice is high among opponents (38% strongly oppose) than supporters (16% strongly favor), which will hopefully serve as a warning sign for NCAA officials.

Jim hopes the NCAA is listening but, alas, they’re not.  While the symmetry of the 64/65 game tournament is terrific — it makes for a great bracket and increases the odds of a Cinderella team advancing deep — the counterargument is a slam dunk:

Mo Games = Mo Money

Certainly, the tourney has expanded numerous times in the past — including within my memory — with no loss of interest:

* 1939—1950: eight teams
* 1951—1952: 16 teams
* 1953—1974: varied between 22 and 25 teams
* 1975—1978: 32 teams
* 1979: 40 teams
* 1980—1982: 48 teams
* 1983: 52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament)
* 1984: 53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament)
* 1985—2000: 64 teams
* 2001—present: 65 teams (with an opening round game to determine whether the 64th or 65th team plays in the first round)

The earlier expansion rounds were justified on the basis of fairness:  Great teams from great conferences were being shut out because only one team from each conference, usually the winner of the conference tournament, went to the tournament.  But, with 65 teams getting a shot, it’s hard to argue that we’re leaving out anyone with a realistic chance of winning.

The proposal being floated around — and almost sure to be implemented by next season — is to do away with the meaningless National Invitational Tournament (the venerable NIT’s glory days are decades in the past) and roll it into the big dance.  The top seeds would get byes and the worst seeds would play a compressed schedule of games.  It’s doable and fans will come to accept it.  But it may well destroy some of the magic of the current format, which manages to get casual fans such as myself interested.

But the NIT is essentially worthless to the NCAA (if it’s being televised, it’s not being watched) and adding more games gives the TV networks more games to bid on.  It’s a win for the networks, the NCAA, coaches on the bubble, weak sister schools, and pretty much everyone else.  Except, it would seem, fans of college basketball.

FILED UNDER: Public Opinion Polls, Sports, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ugh says:

    Meh, my take on expansion of the Tourney has always been this: keep the current 64/65 team tournament (though I would ditch the stupid “play-in” game) except that, every four years (like the Olympics/World Cup) you have a 256 team “Super Tournament.” This would only require a single extra weekend, and to make it work you would (a) cancel all the conference tournaments in favor of the Super Tournament; (b) seed the top 64 teams and assign the remaining teams randomly across the bracket; (c) the top 64 teams get to host the round one and round two games; (d) re-seed after the first two rounds (though I would be open to keeping brackets as is).

    Thus (a) you get to keep the traditional tournament mostly intact; (b) the Super Tournament keeps the bracket symmetry mostly in line (all in line if you get rid of (d) above); (c) more money rolls in; (d) less whining about who got in and out; (e) something fresh and new.

  2. While much of what you say is true, you should also note that there are now over 300 Division 1 basketball programs. That wasn’t true back in the old days when the NCAA Tournament had far fewer entrants.

    So the NCAA pretends to take a principled position regarding student-atheletes while snuggling up to the trough to be able to its administrators ever more money. For the children.

  3. jabberwock says:

    James is right…it’s all about the money. There is absolutely no other reason to expand the tournament. As the song says……MONEY, MONEY, MONEY….you get the idea

  4. Joe says:

    Actually, I really like the idea posted by “Ugh.” It’s a good one.

  5. Trumwill says:

    The FCS subdivision of Division I is expanding their playoff from 16 teams to 24.

    Playoffs expand. That’s what they do. Whenever you hear people talk about how an eight-team playoff in the top NCAA football division would not lessen the importance of the regular season, remember that a 16 or 24 game playoff would and that is exactly what would eventually be instituted.

  6. just me says:

    I can’t say I am a fan, but I also can’t say I care enough to tell them to stop.

    I do think one frustration I have with the current system is that a lot of good teams get left out of the tournament, because they play in a conference that is packed with very good teams, while schools from very weak conferences get an automatic bid.

    One thing I like about Ugh’s idea is just seeding the top 64 teams, and filling in the other 64 spots with teams from weaker conferences and other top teams. I also like the idea of doing the first few games at the stadium of the higher ranked team.

    In the end it is all about the money, and I can’t say I would be all that interested in watching teams I don’t care about play. Shoot I am more a casual basketball watcher anyway. I tend to watch the teams I like and ignore the other games. There are some years I don’t watch the final four, because I don’t really care who wins, or at least not enough to watch the game. I might read the recap in the sports section the next day.

  7. john personna says:

    (((the goldman story is big, big, big)))

  8. James Joyner says:

    (((the goldman story is big, big, big)))

    Yeah, I’ve been busy and really haven’t absorbed enough of it to comment meaningfully.

  9. bains says:

    What the NCAA does does not concern me – I lost interest in Pro and Semi-Pro (college) basketball years ago. Granted there are exceptions, but the days of Bill Walton/Bill Russell led teams are gone.