The NCAA plans to expand the men's basketball tournament from 65 to 68 teams beginning next year and announced a new, $10.8 billion broadcasting deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting on Thursday that will allow every game to be shown live for the first time.
"This is an important day for intercollegiate athletics and the 400,000 student-athletes who compete in NCAA sports," interim NCAA president Jim Isch said. "This agreement will provide on average more than $740 million annually to our conferences and member schools."
The men's tournament last expanded in 2001, adding one team to the 64-team field that was set in 1985. Talk of tweaking March Madness again generated a lot of chatter from fans worried about watering down the competition and those fearing the additional bracket guesswork involved in predicting a winner.
Less than four weeks ago, turning the NCAA's signature event into a 80- or even a 96-team field seemed like all but a done deal.
During the Final Four, NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen talked extensively about the plans to go to 96, saying the three-week event would start two days later and eliminate the play-in game. But more games would have been added to Week 2, and that caused concerns about how much class time the athletes would miss.
Shaheen also cautioned then that nothing had been decided.
Any move hinged on the NCAA's $6 billion, 11-year television deal with CBS Sports, which has broadcast championship games since 1982. The deal, signed in 1999, had a mutual opt-out until July 31, and the NCAA took it amid speculation that ESPN might become a partner in one of the most popular and lucrative tournaments in sports.
"We made an aggressive bid and believe our combination of TV distribution, digital capabilities, season-long coverage and year-round marketing would have served the interests of the NCAA and college fans very well," ESPN said in a statement. "We remain committed to our unparalleled coverage of more than 1,200 men's and women's college basketball games each season."
The NCAA's new, 14-year agreement with CBS and Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc. runs from 2011 through 2024. It means that every game next March will be shown live -- on CBS, TBS, TNT or truTV -- for the first time in the tournament's 73-year history.
Next year, everything through the second round will be shown nationally on the four networks. CBS and Turner will split coverage of the regional semifinal games, while CBS will retain sole coverage of the regional finals, the Final Four and the championship game through 2015.
Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split by CBS and Turner; the Final Four and the championship game will alternate every year between CBS and TBS.
"This is a landmark deal for Turner Broadcasting and we're extremely pleased to begin a long-term relationship with the NCAA and our partners at CBS and to have a commitment that extends well into the next decade," said David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports for Turner Broadcasting.
The NCAA said the Division I Men's Basketball Committee unanimously passed the proposal and it will be reviewed by the board of directors next Thursday.
How critical is the deal to the NCAA?
More than 95 percent of the governing body's total revenue comes from the broadcast rights to the men's basketball tournament. And it was clearly important to New York-based CBS. Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, said the "new strategic partnership" was a core asset -- and a profitable one.
The National Association of Basketball Coaches has long advocated expansion, citing the fact that while the number of Division I teams has expanded greatly over the last quarter-century, the tourney has added only one team. A 96-team field would have likely enveloped the 32-team NIT, the NCAA's other, independently run season-ending tournament.
The proposal is strictly for the men's tournament. Another NCAA committee is looking at whether to expand the women's tournament or keep it in the current format.