NCAA, CBS: Strong Hints That 96 Still In The Mix

Today the NCAA announced in a press release that it has agreed to a new, 14-year contract with CBS and Turner to broadcast the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

NCAA: 96 Teams For March Madness Still On The Table

(CBS, NCAA via SBJ’s John Ourand: 96 Still In The Mix)

The release also addressed the size of the field:

Late Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee unanimously passed a recommendation to the Division I Board of Directors to increase tournament field size to 68 teams beginning with the 2011 Championship. The recommendation will be reviewed by the Division I Board of Directors at its April 29 meeting.

That may lead some to believe that a 96-team tournament is off the table. But as confirmed by NCAA Interim President Jim Isch and CBS Sports President Sean McManus on a media conference call today, a 96-team field remains a possibility in the future - at the NCAA’s discretion.

As I’ve noted here many times over the past three months, the decision on the size of the field is completely up to the NCAA Board of Directors. The new, 68-team tournament recommendation comes from hoops-centric NCAA membership, not the folks who will make the final call. The idea of a 96-team NCAA hoops tournament was never a consideration of NCAA basketball personnel.

The 96-team idea germinated from non-basketball NCAA representatives using the increased field size to raise TV broadcast rights fees, thus maintaining the proper staging of the nearly 100 annual NCAA championship events. Events which incur a massive, multi-million dollar shortfall on the governing body’s balance sheet every year.

On April 29, I expect the NCAA Board of Directors to confirm that the 2011 NCAA men’s basketball tournament will have 68 teams. That confirmation does not mean that a 96-team tournament is dead, only that the staging of a 96-team, 2011 tournament is now, according to a source, logistically impossible.

Today a prominent sports facility scheduling expert told me that if the NCAA suddenly wanted to book an increased number of dates at tournament sites for March 2011, it would likely be unsuccessful in that endeavor.

“It would be hard to get all the necessary arenas cleared and blocked for the games. They probably couldn’t route it that fast.”

2012 is another story.

What’s most interesting about today’s events is why the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee made its 68-team recommendation in the press release knowing that it had no authority over the NCAA Board of Directors, which will make the final call on the size of the field on April 29. NCAA interim President Isch also maintained that 96 teams was still on the table during a subsequent media conference call.

Does that suggest that NCAA athletic directors, coaches and conference commissioners are not on the same page as the university presidents on the NCAA Board of Directors who hatched the 96-team plan?

How could you come to any other conclusion?

The NCAA’s basketball arm is doing all it can to publicly wash its hands of 96, even if it means standing up to a Board of Directors over which is has no authority.

Though if anyone at this moment deserves credit for staving off 96 it isn’t the NCAA basketball people. It’s CBS.

The network brought in Turner to help increase rights fees on a property that it lost money on in 2010. Increased fees that McManus today confirmed apparently weren’t predicated on 96 teams. CBS and Turner apparently also have no control on the size of the field beyond 68.

Unlike the university presidents on the NCAA Board of Directors, CBS smartly understands how wildly unpopular the 96-team prospect is, and apparently did whatever it took to prevent the major field expansion from immediately happening.

Though it does make me wonder had I not broke the 96-team NCAA tournament expansion story on Feb. 1, would we talking about 68 instead of 96 today?

It was that same story that NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen addressed specifically in his “done deal” denial to SI.com’s Stewart Mandel shortly after my original piece.

While Shaheen appears to have won a battle, the war is far from over.