If you thought filling out your 64-game bracket was a head-scratcher last month, you’ll soon be able to look forward to a 95-game maze to the national championship and office-pool glory. If McDonald’s can add a third patty of beef to a sandwich, the NCAA can sure as hell expand its signature event.
The decision to inflate the tournament hasn’t been made official, but it will be in a matter of weeks. With the backing of its dutiful presidents — each of whom knows the value of an extra $1 billion on a television contract — the NCAA is set to reinvent what became a perfect sporting event 25 years ago. A 64-team basketball tournament was a rarity in sports: the synchronized, balanced distribution of a single challenge among contestants mighty and undersized. Every team had to win six games over three weekends to hear “One Shining Moment” played in its honor. The best team — over those three combustible weeks — always won. Single-elimination makes every minute count in this event. The seeding system, while hardly beyond criticism, has been sound. Only three teams seeded lower than four have ever raised the trophy (North Carolina State in ’83, Villanova in ’85, and Kansas in ’88; Butler would be the fourth if they beat Duke Monday night).
Expansion to 96 teams will mean the top 32 teams receive a bye, instantly altering the mission: six wins for the privileged, seven required for the hoi polloi. Just as troubling, the second-tier NIT — if it survives — would have a field with teams primarily outside the country’s top 100. It won’t mean as much to qualify for the NCAA tournament, but it will mean nothing to be selected for the NIT. Imagine your high school prom expanding to include freshmen ... and still receiving an invitation to the Freshman Ball. The NIT will be that irrelevant. (A side thought: Perhaps the first round of the expanded tournament can simply adopt the NIT’s name and logo. It will, after all, include teams otherwise headed for the older event.)
This is all about television, of course, which in turn is all about ad revenue. If CBS can sell ads for 63 games (the silly play-in game is televised by ESPN), imagine what it might bring in with 95 on the menu. But you can count me among those who will check in no earlier than the second round, with second-round teams and second-round advertisers. Let the frosh have their day, but not in the grand ballroom of this magnificent event.
• Tiger Woods’ love life interests me as much as his taste in music or his preference among ice-cream flavors. On the other hand, I’m considerably interested in his career tracking of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major golf championships. The twin Tiger tales collide this week when Woods ends his four-month, self-imposed exile from golf with a return to play at the year’s first major, on the hallowed ground of Augusta National. “A tradition unlike any other” — as CBS tells us again and again — will become an event unlike any sports fans have witnessed before. Part Kentucky Derby and part O.J. trial, this year’s Masters will place the world’s most famous athlete in front of a gawking media contingent only partially interested in whether or not Woods can actually win the green jacket.
And this is precisely the script as written by Tiger Woods. As controlling a celebrity as sports has seen since Joe DiMaggio, Woods has determined where, when, and to whom he speaks since the infamous driveway wreck at his Florida estate last Thanksgiving. With sponsors running as though they’d heard gun shots in a crowded mall, Woods knows the PGA Tour and all its television advertisers need him, perhaps more than the land’s richest athlete needs them. So he gave those interested parties a four-month sampling of what business would be like without Tiger Woods, Inc.
Decide for yourself this weekend if it’s a better world with Tiger in the fairway.