Wednesday, March 10, 2010

96 Problems, But This Ain't One


I'm not going to rant about how bad of an idea to expand the NCAA tournament to 96 teams is. Everyone - and I mean everyone - thinks it's awful. So let's just leave it there. What I want to focus on, and what I feel is the important subtext here, is what this idea and the ideas that come after mean for the future of sports.

Cesar Chavez said, "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed." The social change in this context is the pursuit of television money. It is the hamster that spins the wheel. Everything you see, from Bob Knight struggling through broadcasts to TBS butchering baseball playoffs, is the result of a very lucrative piece of paper. And of course, this is what is pushing the 96 team bracket.

The only thing sports fans don't want more than this is the BCS. Well, guess what: the BCS is here to stay. And the tournament expansion will be here soon. We have to live with it, just like we had to live with over expansion in all the major sports.

If there were less teams in the NFL, NBA, MLB and (most importantly) the NHL, the games would be better. More teams means a more diluted playing field. The 12th man in a 20 team league sees significant playing time in a 30 team league. It's simple math, it hurts the sport. But we've accepted it. When's the last time you had a heated discussion about getting rid of the Raptors, Marlins or Jaguars?

I suspect we will get used to 96. Remember, the tournament wasn't always 64 teams. I guarantee you that teams like Kansas, North Carolina and Duke would have more banners if the postseason was more limited. Look at how it has progressed over the years:

  • 1939–1950: eight teams
  • 1951–1952: 16 teams
  • 1953–1974: varied between 22 and 25 teams
  • 1975–1978: 32 teams
  • 1979: 40 teams
  • 1980–1982: 48 teams
  • 1983: 52 teams (four play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1984: 53 teams (five play-in games before the tournament)
  • 1985–2000: 64 teams
  • 2001—present: 65 teams
The famous North Carolina State championship wasn't even in the 64 team era. UCLA's Wooden years? That's the 22-25 team era. The 64 we know and love isn't a staple, just a transitional period. The bigger the sport gets, the bigger the field.

We will learn to love it. Especially the first time #82 gets to a Elite Eight. Then you can expect the field to expand to 128. And we'll have this same argument over and over again. Is it for the right reasons? No. Will it matter in the long run? To quote Chavez once more, "There is no turning back".

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