It appears the NCAA will be expanding its men’s championship tournament to 96 teams in 2011. Nothing’s official yet, we hear, but all signs are pointing to expansion. Expansion, we believe, would be a mistake.
One of sport’s genuine treasures, the NCAA Tournament takes us on a splendid three-week journey every year, capturing our attention regardless of our school affiliation or status as a sports fan. Like the Super Bowl, the NCAA Tournament is welcoming to all-comers, from “avids” to those that don’t know what channel their cable company has assigned ESPN (oh, the horror).
So why even consider changing it? Other than additional TV occasions, which likely would drive some additional revenue from the next broadcast deal, what positives are there for the consumer in expanding the field. Seriously, I’m waiting for someone to come up with one positive. From our end, we see none. In fact, we see the possibility that there will be a significant shift downward in those things that make the tournament so special.
The proposed format gives the top-seeded 32 teams a bye. The other 64 will play on the same Thursday and Friday to open the tournament as is played currently. The problem with this is that there is nothing at all interesting in those games. Those first two days have always set the stage for what drama will play out in the coming weeks. Upsets, buzzer-beaters by unknown players, and top seeds narrowly escaping first-round play are the things that draw us in at the very opening of the tournament. By giving the top 32 seeds a bye, there is nothing remotely interesting about what amounts to 32 play-in games on the opening Thursday and Friday. Without the wonderful opening act, we generally aren’t excited about sitting through the rest of the movie.
This year, more than ever before, there was legitimate criticism at the beginning of the tournament that too few quality teams actually had the potential to win the championship. This became muted as the tournament progressed since the quality of games was spectacular. But, by adding 32 teams to the field the NCAA will have watered down the quality even further. This might not make fans tune out, but it won’t make them feel better about the quality of the product.
Chasing short-term money, as we see it, never seems to be a good choice for a brand marketer. For instance, many NASCAR tracks added seats aggressively during the boom and we feel that has damaged the brand value as it has become harder to show packed grandstands at many venues since the economy turned down. Don’t think the sports example is relevant? How about Starbucks? Hasn’t much of what makes Starbucks special worn off due to over-expansion?
So to the powers that be at the NCAA, we encourage you to think about the specialness of the brand you’ve created. No one is clamoring for this change. We know times are tight and it would be great to get more money to the schools. But, by doing so, you chip away a little at what makes your property so tremendous. And, we would hate to see that turn into outright erosion. We suggest that instead you put your efforts into knocking some sense into those conference commissioners that control the BCS and give us a playoff system to determine the college football champion.