The NCAA Divison-I Men’s basketball tournament is quite possibly the most exciting event in American sports. From middle of nowhere David stunning Goliath blueblood programs, great teams chasing history, to some of today’s best players flashing their greatness for the first time on center stage. You can find just about every cliche sport narrative you could ever dream of in the 68 team field.
In years past, you’ve probably tried your hand at filling out a bracket in hopes of winning that $100 from your office pool. Myself? I don’t even want to think about the “analysis” I’ve put in trying to hit the 1 in 1,610,543,269 odds in coming up with the perfect bracket. Hell, even President Obama himself gets a segment on ESPN every year for his picks. For many schools, the tournament will be some of the best exposure they’ll get all year long and the results speak for themselves. For those schools to earn that right, however, they must go through a little madness before the dance and they have no problem with that.
For schools in conferences outside the “Power Seven,” end of the season conference tournaments are their only chances at grasping the nation’s attention for a night as they battle for the single automatic bid given to every division one conference. There is an argument to be made that this format waters down the NCAA tournament because it allows teams that wouldn’t have qualified on their regular season merit take a spot away from a more deserving team. The Ivy League offers an alternative example by simply not holding a tournament and giving the bid to the regular season champion. But conference championships are more about exposure than crowning a champion.
Less recognized conferences usually begin their tournaments before larger ones do and some even conclude before the big boys end their regular seasons. For example, the regular season officially came to a close tonight and as of this moment, five teams (Since this page will most likely be updated by the time you read this, those schools are: Florida Gulf Coast University, UNC-Asheville, Yale, Northern Iowa University, and Austin Peay University) have already punched their tickets. This strategy leads to a cohesive flow that benefits the large majority of college basketball. While the larger conferences are preparing for their tournaments, the national stage is left wide open. Smaller conferences utilize that time to get the audiences they desperately want. The power conferences have no qualms with all of the lesser guys getting out of the way early because it allows them to maximize viewership later on when their tournaments are underway.
I think if you looked at the NCAA tournament in a vacuum, the Ivy League’s format is the most logical and rewarding system. Yale earned its bid this year over the course of two months, not one week. However, the world doesn’t work like that and TV time is of incredible value to small programs. Tournaments are the tools these conferences use for exposure by building an exciting story with strong implications and delivering it at the most opportune time. If they lose the chance to put their best programs on the larger stage, so be it. The value in reaching new publics with conference tournaments far outweighs the risk of putting out an undeserving product for these lesser known conferences. You know, cinderella rode in a pumpkin carriage before she danced at the ball. Enjoy the ride.