Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tourney expansion

Who would have thought, several weeks ago, that we'd be sitting here talking about NCAA Tournament expansion--and that the expansion would be by three teams?

While the decision is not quite final (it needs to go to the NCAA Board of Directors next week), the apparent move to a 68-team tournament stops, for now, the rampant talk of more extreme expansion.

The official piece of news today is that CBS is retaining the broadcast rights to the tournament. CBS will share the assignment of the tournament with Turner Broadcasting System so that every game of the tournament is shown live across four national television networks--CBS, TBS, TNT and TruTV. This will be a first for the 73-year old tournament.

CBS, in my mind, had been the underdog in this media rights race even though they were the incumbent. The betting line favored ABC/ESPN and their lineup of stations but, ultimately, the pairing of long-time NCAA partner CBS, with Turner, won the day. And, as usual, there is a lot of money involved.

The deal is for 14 years and $10.8 billion, and includes TV, internet and wireless rights. A unified sales force, from the two networks, will sell the advertising packages and a unified production crew will produce the games. While not spelled out, one could surmise that broadcast talent from across the networks will be used for the games, meaning Turner's NBA talent--guys like Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith--could be involved.

The first and second round games will be shown nationally across the four television outlets. CBS and Turner will split coverage of the regional semifinal games with CBS handling regional finals and the Final Four. Beginning in 2016, coverage of the regional finals will be split between CBS and Turner with the Final Four and National Championship game alternating, every year, between CBS and TBS.

Today's announcement is one more story in the building tale of the diminished influence of the prime networks. It is becoming harder and harder, if not impossible, for one prime network to keep control of a major video property like the NCAA Tournament, the Olympics...or even talk shows. As examples, Monday Night Football moved from ABC to sibling cable network ESPN; Oprah Winfrey is moving from daytime TV to start her own cable channel; and Conan O'Brien is now a TBS property with last week's announcement about his new late-night gig.

Today's news is good news for college hoops junkies. It eliminates--at least for the time being--the talk of a watered-down tournament due to an overabundance of teams. And, who doesn't like the idea of seeing any game of the The challenge now is that, with all 34 games planned for broadcast, we will be entertained by even more obscure broadcast team pairings.

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