The business of college basketball

During my interview with Joe Lunardi on Saturday, one of the topics we discussed was potential expansion of the NCAA Tournament.

Lunardi's personal view of the matter should come as no surprise.

"From a basketball standpoint, there's no need to expand," Lunardi told me. "It's not like we're leaving out a potential national champion in the current format."

But Lunardi acknowledged that there is also a business side to all of this, and that the people who deal with the business of college sports will ultimately have the final questions to answer.

"Does it make sense for the sport for to have more Tournament games and more games available to the public on television?" he said. "If so, at what cost to the regular season, the conference tournaments, key late-season games?"

One person who straddles the line between the competition and business sides is CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. He was in town recently, and I caught up with him for a few minutes to get his opinion.

Whether you agree with Yeager or not, the numbers he refers to below are serious money - especially the bonus revenue his conference gets when CAA teams win Tournament games.

Q. There's a lot of talk lately about the NCAA Tournament expanding - maybe to 68 teams, maybe to 96 teams. What's your view of the debate?

A. We've had a couple of briefings about it by the NCAA, and it's really to protect the business element of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. It's not about 'Oh geez, there's a bunch more deserving teams.' That argument will still go when there's 96 teams in, or when there's 70, or whatever. There's always somebody that's going to be on the cut line and doesn't make it that believes they should be in.

So when you look at it in context, the men's basketball championship is about 98 percent of the NCAA's revenue. That runs through all sports - men and women, Divisions I, II and III, all kinds of education and social programs. So the study that's being done about expanding the Tournament is with the sole view of protecting that business element of the championship.

It's not about 'there's 30 more teams out there that could win the NCAA title. That's not really the impetus for the discussion.

Q. On a practical level, do you think it's a matter of folding the NIT into the NCAA Tournament?

A. Yes. The NIT would go away at that point. The NCAA owns the NIT now, it has for the last six or seven years. So that's part of it, and an opportunity to enhance the Tournament experience for our teams that are in it. I think there's little down side - again, assuming that the general elements of the existing business deal can be preserved.

Q. I hate to phrase the question this way, but I can't really think of another way to do it. You mentioned it, and there were some NCAA meeting minutes that were circulated which said that making more money is the primary reason for expanding the NCAA Tournament. In your estimation, is that the right primary motive?

A. Well, yeah. The men's basketball championship funds the NCAA. It funds everything the NCAA is doing. In our league, for example, it provides a million and a half dollars a year out of that for our student-athletes, for emergency needs and special things. All that could go away - or not go away but be significantly reduced.

So I think to the element of expansion that can protect the business model, that doesn't compromise the basic educational mission, is something we need to look at. So, again, if this is simply about putting more teams in the tournament, then no, I don't believe it's necessary.