March Madness is nothing without its Cinderellas; and it has been a big week for the little guys. For the first time in the history of the tournament, a 16 seed took out a 1 seed as the UMBC Retrievers outclassed overall number one seed Virginia in Charlotte on Friday. Two 13 seeds shocked 4 seeds as Marshall and the University at Buffalo beat perennial March Madness contenders Wichita State and Arizona, respectively. Loyola University Chicago, a team making its first tournament appearance since 1985, clinched a spot in the Sweet Sixteen as a 12 seed by taking out Miami and Tennessee.
But as these mid-majors once again become America’s darlings, it’s important to recognize that it’s all part of the NCAA’s business model of selling its unique brand of “amateurism” to the nation. There are only so many Cinderellas because the NCAA purposely limits their presence in the field of 68. Teams get into the dance in one of two ways. A team can automatically qualify by winning its conference tournament. There are 32 conferences in Division I men’s college basketball and thus 27 non-Power 5 conferences. The remaining 36 teams are given “at-large” bids, which are awarded at the sole discretion of the infamous Selection Committee.
This year, 36 non-Power 5 Conferences made the tournament–27 automatic bids and 9 at-large. This means the Selection Committee awarded 27 at-large bids to Power Five schools. All 9 at-large bids went to schools with huge basketball budgets from three conferences, the Big East, Atlantic 10 and American Athletic Conference. The Selection Committee has unbridled power to pick tournament teams and teams who don’t get in, like St. Mary’s or Middle Tennessee State, have no recourse, legal or institutional, against the committee for a decision that could otherwise be deemed arbitrary and capricious.
So, what does this mean for mid-majors? Win the conference tournament or don’t dance. As the committee makes its selections it inevitably takes economics into consideration. While it’s fun for casual fans to root for Cinderellas in the first round, Duke, UNC, Kansas and Kentucky drive up both the quality of basketball in the Championship and the viewership numbers, in part due to the presence of future NBA lottery picks. Having a big school in the finals then justifies the current $869 million in revenue the NCAA earned this year during the tournament. There’s a reason #9 seed Kansas State will #16 UMBC on truTV, not CBS. What a nightmare it would be for the NCAA if two mid-majors squared off in the finals. It’s not that these schools don’t matter to the tournament–they do–but they have their place, and it’s in the first rounds, not the Final Four.
In the end, the NCAA is using supply and demand to drive revenues. The less mid-majors in the tournament, the less opportunity for upsets and the greater the chance one of the organization’s marquee programs makes it to the finals. To be fair, a huge reason so few mid-majors get at large bids is because Power Five schools have better teams and the nation’s best players. Oklahoma lost 9 of its last 11 games but still made the dance (only to lose to a mid-major, Rhode Island, in the first round), likely because it had player of the year hopeful, Trae Young, on its team.
In light of the FBI investigation into college basketball, the NCAA needs to step back to plan major reform to its amateurism model. Part of this change should be to give the little guys bigger representation in the tournament. An extra at-large bid to a mid-major school would go a long way to show the country that the organization is committed to something beyond its billion-dollar revenues; these schools need the revenue a whole lot more than the Power Five. Plus, it increases the opportunity for Cinderellas–the guys who actually look like amateurs and who the FBI isn’t investigating–which is something the country will forever be willing to get behind. In the end, UMBC proved that amidst all this FBI nonsense, there was still some good left in the College Basketball world.
Long live the mid-major.
Photo credit: Baltimore Sun.