In Defense of 64

Today’s the first day of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship! Hooray!

No, well, actually today’s not the first day. You might think it was today, because that’s when your brackets were due to the office pool manager or on the website you’ve created 5 or 10 or more brackets on. No, since 2001 there has been at least one game played prior to the Thursday start everyone is used to, when 16 games are played by 32 teams and office efficiency slumps significantly.

Thursday isn’t even the “first round” of games any more. Since last year, when the tournament expanded to 68 teams, the 4 “play-in” games (affectionately called the First Four, officially) are now the first round, with Thursday/Friday games deemed the second round and Saturday/Sunday games the third round. Apparently it’s one of those crazy tournaments where almost everyone gets a first round bye because the number of entrants was uneven, something I’d expect to see in a local horseshoe tournament, not a multi-million dollar industry like college basketball.

I am often told I am too nostalgic for the days of my youth, and seeing as there were 64 teams from 1985-2000, my formative years of sport (age 3-18), it’s understandable I would beckon those days to return again. For a 7 or 8 year stretch in the 90s, I would spend the 3 days between Sunday and Thursday meticulously measuring and drawing a 64-team bracket on a large poster board so I could keep up with the games throughout the tournament. (I’m pretty sure those old poster boards still live under the bed at my parents’ house.) The commitment faded out before the 65th team was added, but I wonder now, “What would I have done on my poster board with those extra teams?”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s really no need for all these extra teams. Every Division I men’s basketball team, except those in the Ivy League, play in a conference tournament, where they have the ability to earn–and this is the USA, after all, and we’re all about earning things–earn their way in to the tournament. Every team has the opportunity–again, a very USA, USA kind of word–the opportunity to make it. So why did they have to mess with the perfection that was the 64-team bracket?

It’s all about money and sports (a common rant of mine). More games means more money for TV stations and the NCAA. Even though the First Four games were on some TV station called truTV, it must be good for someone. And not only is there the NCAA Championship tournament, you have the NCAA NIT–this year celebrating it’s 75th anniversary– and two tournaments you’ve probably never heard of, the CBI and CIT, both created in the past 5 years. In total, 148 of the 345 Div. 1 men’s basketball teams make the “post season.” That’s 43% of all the teams. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain too much, though, because in the money-hungry NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), a whopping 57% of teams (70 of 122) last year found themselves playing in a bowl game (including UCLA, who finished the season 6-8). Only 2 “bowl eligible” teams didn’t find themselves in a bowl. (And UCLA had to actually get a waiver to play in their bowl game.)

We talk about corruption by money and greed of so many of our institutions these days. Sports, in many ways, are getting there for me (if not all the way there already). The public funding of sports complexes has already gotten its backlash. If you have a satellite or cable subscription, you’re already paying over $100 for sports programming, whether you watch or not. And ticket prices to live sporting events (professional and college alike) have risen astronomically, such that it’s been a few years now since I paid to see one in person.

I still filled out a bracket this year, and I visit ESPN.com pretty much every day, though more so because I feel it’s my duty to keep up with the news everyone is thinking and talking about. But if greed and money continue to push the sports agenda, how long will it take until that becomes the topic of conversation instead of who won last night’s game? 

(On a related note, the NY Times ran a great Room for Debate piece this week about the connection (or disconnect) of the NCAA, money, and “student” athletes. Take a look.)

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