With Rhode Island’s three-point loss to a short-handed Oregon squad on Sunday night, the NCAA locked in its third consecutive mid-major-free Sweet 16 (Gonzaga is a national powerhouse and has been for 20 years, they don’t count.) Believe it or not, the last underdog, no-name team to break through to the second weekend was Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City squad back in 2013.
For both the casual and hardcore fans of college basketball, this is a disappointing development softened only by the ACC’s collective faceplant and a few upsets—had the nation not been gifted first-weekend losses by Duke and Villanova, the Sweet 16 would have been bland as hell, so thank you for your services, Wisconsin and South Carolina. Having a no-name team fuck everybody’s bracket up and make a one- or two-seed snot-cry on the court is the beauty of March Madness; yet here we are again, left with no previously obscure teams to root for.
There are a number of reasonable explanations as to why mid-majors have failed to live past the first weekend: varying talent levels, seeding, a soft bubble, luck. But really, the fact that Middle Tennessee State was the only 12-seed or lower to win its first-round matchup—and the fact that all mid-majors are seeded so low—is a product of the NCAA’s design. The tournament is the association’s biggest money-maker of the year, making up nearly 90 percent of the association’s annual haul; it is also worth quite a bit for the conferences, universities, and athletic departments sending their teams dancing. So it’s quite important that the NCAA design a system that benefits its fellow money-makers.
The NCAA payout model is based off how many units a conference earns. Conferences are awarded one unit for each game a member school competes in and are then encouraged to split the total amongst all their members, though that is not mandated. According to the News & Observer, merely participating in a single round of this year’s tournament will earn conferences a payout of $264,859 per school, a number that increases and is reapplied for the following six years. The Mercury News has a solid breakdown of the Pac-12's current financial success that lays out the NCAA’s payment model pretty well:
Thus far, the Pac-12 has 12 units: Four teams in the tournament and eight victories.
Those units will be carried forward for six years. USC’s three games played, for example, translate to 18 units over the rolling payout period.
And the units move forward at an ever-increasing dollar amount.
The 2.9 percent annual escalator means that units earned this year will be paid out next spring at $272,620 each, then $280,756 in Year 2, then $288,897 in Year 3, etc.
Here’s the value of 2017 units going forward:
If Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA all lose in the Sweet 16, the Pac-12 would walk away with $21.1 million after the units accumulated their total worth. Now, the $1.75 million that each school will collect is a nice bonus, but when you’re dealing with athletic departments like Oregon’s, which raked in $105 million in revenue two years ago, a deep tourney run isn’t make-or-break for the majority of schools in the top-level conferences.
Mid-major conferences, on the other hand, send just one or two schools per year; those teams usually get bounced in the first or second round, with the exception of memorable teams like 2014 Florida Gulf Coast or 2011 VCU or 2010 Butler. This ultimately handicaps their access to the big pot—even if a team makes an improbable run, that money from one team is still going to spread amongst all the conference members. As the Washington Post reported three years ago, this money can make up nearly 70 percent of a smaller conference’s annual budget. The area individual schools look to capitalize on is from the sudden flood of merchandise requests—the Eagles’ book store sales increased 1,000 percent after they knocked off San Diego State, according to CNN Money.
Now, the easy counter-argument to all this griping about the lack of Cinderellas is: “Well, the bluebloods have the best players and teams, and they draw the biggest crowds and sell the most merchandise throughout the year, so it makes sense they’d get the majority of the tournament spots.”
This is mostly true—but the reason March Madness is a billion-dollar event is not because people tune in just to see UNC, Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas in the Final Four every year. That’s boring as shit! Georgia State didn’t survive the first weekend in 2015, yet R.J. Hunter harpooning Baylor and making Ron Hunter fall out of his chair became an indelible tourney moment. It resonated with people so much that Turner had Ron lined up to join their crew as an analyst the moment his team lost two days later to Xavier.
Fans (and the media) love a good Cinderella story; mid-major underdogs provide an easy narrative thanks to the uphill battle they face both in simply getting to the tournament and then hanging in with programs that have greater access to talent and ungodly bank accounts.
All this has been thoroughly reported on before; it’s not some giant reveal that the tournament itself is set up to help the established top-tier programs advance and gobble up revenue. The best a smaller league can hope for is for its tournament champion (not its regular season champion, for some fucking reason) to reel off three or four wins and generate some extra cash and notoriety. Then, if the school can string together a couple years of at least advancing one round, it can maybe work towards following the footsteps of Gonzaga or Wichita State or Butler. Simply put, the rich get richer while the poor hope to get lucky.