ARLINGTON, Texas – The tournament that began with the lure of a billion-dollar bracket will end at a billion-dollar stadium outside of Dallas.
Big as March Madness and the Final Four have become, they’re not big enough to blot out the storm clouds on the horizon. The NCAA has issues looming – among them, the possible unionization of players and a lawsuit challenging the NCAA’s ban on paying players.
If the NCAA loses either case, it would threaten almost everything. That includes its most lucrative and intoxicating event: The basketball tournament, which is celebrating best-in-a-generation TV ratings, a record number of overtime games and a staple of big-name programs in the Final Four – Florida, Wisconsin, Connecticut and Kentucky.
“If the NCAA loses, you’ve opened a Pandora’s box that will generate problems, questions and concerns for decades,” says Arthur Miller, the chairman of New York University’s Sports and Society program. “It may be the end of the NCAA. It certainly will reduce the power of the NCAA.”
For the last three weeks, the NCAA’s sway over America has been strong as ever.
The average 9.8 million viewers are the highest in 21 years. The 6.2 rating is tied with last season as the best for the tournament since 2005.
The NCAA’s 14-year, $10.8 billion TV contract made every game available on a national telecast and there was plenty to watch, including a record-tying seven overtimes and about as many games that came down to a made or missed shot at the buzzer.
Meanwhile, Warren Buffett’s offer of $1 billion to anyone who could fill out a perfect bracket served to bring more casual fans into the mix. Nobody won the billion.
But the billions really at stake are those the NCAA distributes to its member schools from the TV deal. That cash makes the system run, and it is in limbo while the unwieldy organization, made up of 351 schools with very different missions, tries to resolve issues on several fronts.
“It doesn’t look good for them,” said civil engineering professor Timothy Ross, the University of New Mexico’s representative at the reform-minded Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “They don’t have much of a leg to stand on. The whole situation gets worse and worse every year. Coaches make more money, universities make more money, the way the athletes are treated is a joke. It’s embarrassing from a university standpoint.”
Last week, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern football players had a right to unionize and likened college players to full-time employees. Players are seeking better health care and more protection after they graduate, along with a stake in the profits.
There are similar stakes involved in the lawsuit filed by former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon. The trial is scheduled for June and an NCAA loss there could force a complete rewriting of the current relationship between the NCAA, its schools and their players.
Even staunch supporters of the current system agree changes are afoot.
“You can’t ignore all the litigation,” said Chuck Neinas, a longtime college sports leader who most recently served as interim commissioner of the Big 12. “There is a need for some changes. The auto industry is always trying to improve their model. College athletics should do the same. But the basics are still sound.”
Earlier this year at the NCAA convention, ideas were shared about giving the five power conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — more autonomy within the current system. Some are hoping a new model will be in place by this spring.
A key goal would be to make it possible for players at bigger schools to receive a stipend. The idea of a $2,000 stipend was on the table but got voted down by smaller schools that don’t have huge moneymaking basketball and football teams to buttress the entire athletics program.
If those reforms don’t go through, there’s a chance the five conferences might peel away, much the way the big powers did in college football three decades ago.
“That’s not a preferred option on any of our parts,” said Harvey Perlman, chancellor at Nebraska who chairs the new college football playoff board. “But if we can’t achieve something within the organization, as I say, some of these threats to us are existential and we could be forced into a circumstance where we don’t have any choice.”
A split like that would end the NCAA tournament as we know it. What’s March Madness, after all, without the prospect of a Butler or Dayton or Wichita State crashing the party?
Though the four teams at this Final Four are all considered “big,” UConn is a 7 seed, and eighth-seeded Kentucky, of all teams, has managed to shape an underdog story of its own: Ultra-talented freshmen almost implode, before embracing the team concept and making their run.
It will all play out starting Saturday in the $1.3 billion AT&T Stadium, the colossus built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. It hosted a Super Bowl three years ago. Now, it gets arguably the nation’s second-biggest sports weekend.
“I remember when I was playing in college, when we went to the tournament, we weren’t playing in venues like this,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who played for the Huskies in the early 1990s. “Everything has changed and evolved, and, in some way, the student-athlete, that dynamic has to evolve and change, too.”