NCAA to expand March Madness from 65 to 68 teams

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Who says the NCAA is done expanding the men's basketball tournament?

College sports' largest governing body plans to expand next year's March Madness field from 65 to 68 teams without making a major format change. It also said it has reached a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting that keeps the door open to more expansion.

"What is remarkable is that it is exclusively at the NCAA's discretion regarding field size for the championship," NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen said, referring to language in the TV deal.

The new 68-team tourney is expected to be approved next Thursday by the NCAA's Board of Directors, and Shaheen said there were no plans to immediately look at a 96-team field many were expecting for 2011.

But the winning television networks didn't need more teams or extra games to sell them on the new TV package.

CBS was relieved to get rid of the final three years on its previous 11-year, $6 billion contract — three years that included steep $700 million annual payments. Turner Broadcasting jumps from being a non-player in the college basketball world to having the sport's marquee event — including championship games in alternating years starting in 2016.

And the NCAA gets its long-desired wish of seeing every game telecast nationally with fewer live look-ins and switching away from blowouts.

"It was a goal from the very, very beginning. I believe it's what our membership wanted, and it's what our fans wanted across the country," NCAA interim president Jim Isch said Thursday. "I think without question, it was one of the driving factors in our position and why CBS and Turner make such great partners."

The previous television deal was to expire in three years and both CBS and the NCAA could have opted out by July 31. NCAA officials were preparing to do just that, then expand the tourney to as many as 96 teams in hopes of creating a bidding war that would generate bigger payouts for NCAA schools.

The collaboration of CBS and Turner beat out at least an offer from ESPN — even if it meant sharing the national stage with Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System Inc. and its stable of cable channels: TNT, TBS and truTV. All four networks will broadcast NCAA tourney games starting next March.

The new deal runs through 2024, and Isch said it will provide an average of $740 million per year to be returned to NCAA conferences and schools.

The toughest part for the NCAA was finding a balance between the networks, the fans and the coaches, whose jobs often hinge on making the tournament.

During a news conference at the Final Four, Shaheen was hounded by questions about how many more classes players would miss to play in additional tourney games. College basketball analysts called the 65-team format the perfect size, suggesting more teams would water down the tourney.

So the NCAA settled on a more modest proposal that pleased many more people, including Gene Smith, the Ohio State athletic director and incoming NCAA selection committee chairman.

"They understood that we had a great tournament this year with high ratings and a high level of excitement," Smith said. "It was thought that 96 teams would generate more money to support the NCAA's many sports and initiatives. But we were all able to come to an understanding that gives us the support without adding that many teams."

The larger field likely would have enveloped the 32-team NIT, the NCAA's other, independently run season-ending tournament.

The 68-team move is only the second expansion since the NCAA went to a 64-team field in 1985 (it added one team in 2001). The latest change will likely mean the top seed in each region will play the winner of an opening-round game.

Television executives insist it works.

"We are very comfortable with 68, that's what the deal is based on and it meets all our financial needs and programming needs," said Sean McManus, the head of CBS News and Sports. He told The Associated Press he expects CBS to start showing a profit on the tourney as early as next year.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches has long advocated expansion, thinking bigger is better and gives more of its members a chance to firm up their job security.

Some coaches cite numbers showing that while the number of Division I teams has expanded greatly over the last quarter-century, the number of tourney spots only increased by one.

"As coaches, we've been strongly in favor of expansion," NABC executive director Jim Haney said. "I think 68 would be comfortably welcomed by all."

Some coaches, such as Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Notre Dame's Mike Brey, were hoping for more teams.

But Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said this year's tournament, which included deep runs by Cornell, Northern Iowa, Xavier and national runner-up Butler, show changes were unwarranted.

"I have a tough time seeing why we have to change a concept that has been so good," Calhoun said. "This year, the parity was incredible. If you have something that has become magical and what has enhanced it is not more games, but the Butlers and the parity. Those things are what have done it. George Mason. It's been proven time and again."

The new TV deal means that starting next year, each game through the second round will be shown nationally on the four networks. CBS and Turner, an entity of Time Warner Inc., will split coverage of the regional semifinal games, while CBS will retain coverage of the regional finals, the Final Four and the championship game through 2015.

Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split by CBS and Turner; the Final Four and the championship game will alternate every year between CBS and TBS. Under the agreement, the NCAA and will again provide live streaming video of games, though Turner secured rights for any online player it develops.

It was a rare loss for ESPN, which has deals with the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball and regularly broadcasts college basketball and football. ESPN also has the rights to other NCAA championships, including the women's basketball tournament.

"We made an aggressive bid and believe our combination of TV distribution, digital capabilities, season-long coverage and year-round marketing would have served the interests of the NCAA and college fans very well," ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz said.

How critical is the deal to the NCAA? More than 95 percent of the governing body's total revenue comes from the broadcast rights to the men's basketball tournament.

And it was important to New York-based CBS. McManus said the "new strategic partnership" was a core asset and a profitable one, though he was clearly glad to get out of the final three years of the old deal.

"It's no secret that the last three years were extremely, extremely challenging for us financially so we were looking to restructure those last three years and we've done that," McManus said. "It's a really, really good and important deal for us."


AP Sports Writers Jim O'Connell, Ralph D. Russo, John Marshall and Rusty Miller contributed to this report.