Something important happened on Thursday—and it wasn’t the NFL draft. I’m always amused when I flip to the draft, especially on ESPN, how no matter what happens, the experts claim they knew this was coming and this is a great pick for whatever team is involved. Every once in a while Mel Kiper will question a pick—usually whomever the Oakland Raiders draft because that’s a pretty safe bet—but for the most part every franchise is doing a great job and every player drafted is a wonderful person.
If I had a dollar for every time someone said, “quality kid,” on Thursday night I’d be making almost as much money as the NCAA is going to make on its new basketball TV contract.
Which brings me to the important news of Thursday: The NCAA basketball committee actually did something right. Instead of going forward with plans to expand to a ridiculous 96 team tournament, the committee reigned itself—and the ever-greedy presidents, commissioners and athletic directors—in at least for a while, recommending expansion for next season to 68 teams.
Let’s not pretend for even a second that this was done for any of the right reasons: preserving the integrity of the regular season and the conference tournaments; allowing a tournament bid to continue to have meaning; continuing an event that may have been as good as it has ever been in 2010. This happened for a couple of reasons: there were logistical issues in terms of changing existing rental agreements to add another round of games (two more days in the building) as early as next spring. Plus, the NCAA took a pounding in recent months when the plan to go to 96 teams leaked out and looked especially bad at The Final Four when NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen literally refused to answer a simple question about missed class time that would have been caused by the extra game.
I was the one who asked that question (repeatedly) and the exchange received a lot of attention because Shaheen simply wouldn’t admit in that public forum that OF COURSE there would be more missed class time. A number of people have pointed out—correctly—since then that the issue is a minor one since the players already miss lots of class time and a lot of them have no intention of returning to class once the tournament is over.
I knew that when I brought the issue up. The only reason I did it was to point out the hypocrisy and basic dishonestly of the NCAA dishing out all the ‘student-athlete,’ garbage it dishes out. In fact I got a bit nauseous when I read the canned quote yesterday from acting NCAA President Jim Isch saying, ‘this is a great day for the 400,000 NCAA student athletes.” Memo to Isch: Shut up and cash the checks.
I’ve had a few people say that my exchange with Shaheen in Indy somehow played a role in this. My ego’s big, but not that big. I DO think the drumbeat across the country from people saying that 96 teams was bad for basketball and a CLEAR money-grab did have an affect because the NCAA is, if nothing else, ultra-image conscious. What’s more, even though the new TV agreement with CBS and Turner is for 14 years, I don’t expect the number of teams to stay at 68 for the life of the agreement. I think it will go up either in one fell swoop in a few years or gradually, the way it went from 25 teams in 1974 to 64 in 1985 with stops along the way at 32, 40, 48 and 53.
The addition of three teams probably means four play-in games in Dayton instead of one. Undoubtedly the committee will ship the eight lowest-seeded one-bid league teams there instead of doing the right thing and sending the last eight at-large teams to play. (You seed the four winners as No. 12 seeds). Sending the at-larges means better TV—more name teams—and it is fairer since the tournament is probably the zenith for most of the one-bid league players while the players from the name schools are mostly looking forward to pro careers or being back in the tournament again before their college careers are over. Don’t think for a second the committee does the right thing on this one. Additionally, the adding of the three teams means the one-bid teams get their seedings pushed down a little more: the added three teams will all be seeded ahead of most of the one-bid schools. Consider this: Cornell was NOT seeded ahead of a single at-large team this season. Nice job by the committee there.
The real winner in all this is Turner. CBS could not have outbid ESPN for the rights without a cable partner. What’s more, ESPN was pitching the NCAA on the fact that it had the outlets to televise all games rather than regionalizing the first three rounds as CBS has been doing. Turner’s presence with three networks of its own---TBS, TNT and truTV—will allow the new partnership to do what ESPN was proposing to do.
Clearly, Turner is putting up a lot of the $10.8 billion the contract is worth because beginning in 2016 it will alternate televising the Final Four with CBS. No way CBS gives up any part of that event without a lot of money being involved. Regardless, we should all be happy on two levels: The tournament bubble will not be expanded—at least for now—to include the 12th place teams in The Big East and the ACC—and the ESPN takeover of all sports is slowed at least for a little while. Consider this: if ESPN had gotten the deal your main studio host for the entire NCAA Tournament would have been Chris Berman—guaranteed. He might have brought Mel Kiper and John Gruden with him too.
Speaking of which I did watch some of the draft last night—switching frequently over to watch Johan Santana pitch and the New Jersey Devils flounder. First of all, what’s with the players hugging Roger Goodell? I mean, enough with that. Second, I know it is a live event but is it just me or was ESPN completely out of synch most of the night? There were all sorts of awkward silences on the main set and the kicker came when Goodell introduced all the military folks—which to me, as much as I respect all those people, is nothing but pandering by the NFL—and no one on the set other than Tom Jackson seemed to know what was going on. Steve Young kept rambling, then they showed Goodell briefly and then Young, Kiper and Gruden kept talking to one another as if they were off mike. It was highlighted by Berman—on camera—trying to give them all the ‘cut,’ sign to let them know they were on camera and on mike.
When Berman tried to recover by saying, “this is always the highlight of the first round…” it was pretty much falldown funny. Even so, the worst TV of the night was on the NFL Network. I love Deion Sanders, really enjoyed getting to know him when I did my book on the Ravens a few years ago. But his interviews with the players just drafted were brutal: “Dreams come true, they can expect hard work from me in (fill in the city). Greatest thrill of my life.”
Back to you in the booth. Time for another shot of a player and his posse talking on a cell phone while Goodell waits for him to hug 43 people, put on a cap and come on stage. I think tonight I’ll stick to the Mets.