March Madness really is madness

AJ Contributor
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It is nearly March Madness time and if there ever was a sports tournament appropriately named madness, it is the Men’s College Basketball Tournament. Somehow people have been conned into believing that the 65-team event is a seminal moment in sports and that the excitement of the games transcends sports.

But a closer look at the tournament reveals something else. It is not just a sports event, it is a business, a huge business that is nothing more than a television series funded by CBS and that the people behind the tournament are guided far more by money than an athletic event. How else do you explain the constant stories for the past three months that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) members are thinking about expanding the tournament from the present 65 teams to 96 and with an expansion of the tournament would come more television money from some source, whether it is Sumner Redstone’s CBS or from merger of Comcast and NBC (which will include the Versus network), or Disney’s ESPN-ABC or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp/FOX.

The expansion of the tournament to 96 teams talk coincides with an escape clause in the 11-year, $6 billion agreement between Redstone and the college basketball governing body. CBS will pay the NCAA more than two billion dollars over the final three years of the contract in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Money talks in college basketball where everyone seems to be making money but the game’s performers—-the players. CBS is doing rather well selling advertisements for this year’s March Madness matches, the big name coaches seem to be doing rather well financially and the successful coaches at midsize schools will be showing off their wares and possibly get a chance to move up to a school looking to turn around a mediocre or losing program and make a pile of cash from various sources including the school, the school’s cable TV partner, a sneaker company who outfits the coach with clothing attire, the school with uniforms and sneakers and from boosters along with marketing and advertising partners.

Coaches can break contracts and move on while the players….well the players could transfer to another school and have to sit out a season. The players get a scholarship but catch players at the right time away from the team environment that might tell you it is almost impossible to be a student and a player at the same time because of the commitment that the coach requires from that player because of practices, travel and the actual game.

Sure the players have tutors available but graduation rates among college basketball players as a whole are terrible and the NCAA can deride studies showing poor graduation rates but even the colleges know they are shortchanging the players. A player is a slave to the scholarship and the games come first.

College and university presidents and chancellors will look the other way when coaches commit violations in an effort to build a tournament team.

CBS will have the pom poms waiving and with the sports writing community extolling the virtue of some coach and the greatness of college sports. The people buying tickets in the arena will ignore the business aspect of college sports. Journalists become Sgt. Hans Schultz, the guard who watched over Stalag 13 in the old television show Hogan’s Heroes. Schultz reported to Colonel Klink and when asked about the prisoner’s activities, he would tell Klink, “I know nothing.”

The NCAA requires cities to bid for each round of the tournament and that means that the college body is getting big money guarantees from someone in those cities and the Final Four is now played in domed football stadiums with huge seating capacities and tickets are very expensive. The performers—the players—may be amateurs and not getting compensated but there is nothing amateur about the Men’s Basketball Tournament. There are coaches making millions, there are advertisers paying millions for marketing partnerships and big rollers buying club seats and luxury boxes.

This is the big leagues even though the performers who are the real stars of the show are not getting a check.

But all of the major league trappings are not enough for the NCAA. Getting bigger seems to be the formula needed to get more cash into the coffers.

The NCAA is looking for more TV money which is why the body is thinking of expanding the field for the championship. NCAA negotiators know that CBS, which does not have a cable TV sports partner, cannot pay them as much as Disney’s ESPN or possibly the Comcast-NBC (Versus and possibly USA, CNBC and MSNBC set up) entity. The negotiators know the Disney (ESPN) has given the Bowl Championship Series a four year, $495 million for five games a year. CBS might turn to Turner Sports as a cable partner. Murdoch has some regional cable sports networks but would need a real partner to land the tourney.

Disney’s ESPN can spend wildly on sports fee because of the Cable TV Act of 1984 which allowed the bundling of then-dying cable TV networks like ESPN, CNN, The Weather Channel to be bundled and sold as one to cable TV subscribers on a basic-expanded tier which means 100 percent of those buying the basic expanded tier are paying for an entity that a fraction of the cable TV universe are using, ESPN. The legislation, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, allows cable networks who manage to land on the basic-expanded tier (multiple system operators (MSO), not consumers, decide what ends up on the basic-expanded tier which is why the National Football League has been fighting with operators like Time Warner and Cablevision for a spot on that vaunted tier, the MSOs have decided the NFL Network is not worth the price that NFL has attached to the network. ESPN is charging subscribers more than $4 a month for the network. ESPN can get high prices despite mediocre ratings because there is a perception that men between 18 and 34 watch a lot of sports and 18-34 year old males are a hard to reach advertising demographic and that advertisers can reach them en masse during a televised sports event.).

ESPN can outspend over the air network rivals because it gets a month fee from more than 95 million subscribers along with advertising dollars.

The various conferences are also chasing more TV dollars. Why else is the Pacific 10 considering expanding with the conference TV contracts with Disney’s ESPN, the Fox Sports Network and Versus ending in two years? The Pac 10 may also want to start a cable TV network like the Big Ten, the Mountain West or the Southeast Conference.

In pursuit of more TV money, the Atlantic Coast Conference raided the Big East in 2003 and took Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to make the ACC more attractive for a TV network and advertisers. The Big East filled the holes by taking three colleges, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida from Conference USA. Other conferences poached other conferences and things have calmed down since 2003 although the Big Ten took a run at Rutgers and may go after the University of Pittsburgh. The state of Connecticut sued the ACC for poaching the Big East and weakening the college sports conference. Eventually the two conferences settled.

Money talks in college sports.

March Madness captivates the sporting public for three weeks and has caused some problems in the workplace on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament with people at work watching games on the internet instead of doing their job. That is how wrapped up people have become in the tourney. Meanwhile CBS never delves into questions that academia poses privately about the pursuit of a basketball tournament which includes why teams are traveling far away from their campuses to play games which seem to also coincide during the midterm time period.

CBS, the NCAA money partner, never brings up the question of whether players are really student-athletes or if they are merely fund raisers for a program. There is also another component worth pursuing. Are the most talented freshmen who know they are leaving for the NBA following the college tourney attending class during the second semester of the school year?

College routinely holds hearings on the college sports industry, after all the colleges do have a antitrust TV exemptions thanks to the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 and enjoy tax exempt status, but those hearings seem to center around the unfairness of the Bowl Championship Series which prompted Texas Republican Joe Barton to introduce legislation in January 2009, the College Football Playoff Act of 2009 (HR 309).

Barton’s bill was aimed at the BCS’ championship game. HR 309’s language was simple. “To prohibit, as an unfair and deceptive act or practice, the promotion, marketing, and advertising of any post-season NCAA Division I football game as a national championship game unless such game is the culmination of a fair and equitable playoff system.”

The bill went nowhere as did President Barack Obama’s call for a college football championship contest.

The Madness starts soon, and because of the chance of scooping up more money, the Madness will get even bigger in the future and everyone will make a buck except the stars of the show—the players.

Evan Weiner is a radio-TV commentator, journalist, author and lecturer on “the politics of sports business.”