The NCAA men's Division I basketball tournament starts tonight in Dayton with two games, as it has since 2011, with another two tomorrow night. The "First Four"—imagined as a parallel to the Final Four, even though the former features eight teams and the latter, uh, four—has traditionally been seen as a wasteland of ignored teams playing ignored games. But is it really?
Given the perceived irrelevance of the NCAA tournament Preliminary Round (your office pool probably omits the four play-in games [shut up, they're play-ins] entirely), it's easy to assume teams would want to avoid the fate of being sent to Dayton by the selection committee. But in a few ways, this isn't quite right—for both financial and, surprisingly, competitive reasons. Competing in a play-in game substantially increases an athletic department's estimated revenue from the tournament while improving the team's overall NCAA tournament record.
Everybody knows that no 16-seed has ever upset a 1 in the NCAA tournament—though Gonzaga tried its hardest to cough one up just last year, and low-seed upsets are becoming more common. However, since the introduction of the P.I.G. in 2001, the winning percentage of 16-seeds in the tournament itself has been able to rise above .000. This is tautological, but worth laying out: the success rate of your 16-seeded team winning a game in the NCAA tournament has been zero if they are not sent to Dayton; it is above zero if they are. Indeed, the expected NCAA tournament winning percentage of any team that plays in the P.I.G. is .333. That's considerably higher than zero!
But what about the bigger schools, who are at-large bids exiled to Dayton, and looking to win some real tournament games, not get worn out, or worse, embarrassed before Thursday's games even tip off? It's less obvious, but they actually come out on the winning side too. In the three previous tournaments, that line has been at 11 twice, 12 twice, and once each at 13 and 14. The average number of wins in the tournament by the 18 teams at these seed lines that did not compete in the P.I.G. is 0.39 wins. P.I.G. competitors, on the other hand, have averaged 1.08 wins at the NCAA tournament. That's obviously buttressed by an additional game against a lower seed, but if you eliminate the six P.I.G. wins themselves, that average only drops to 0.58 wins.
Why do teams that win their P.I.G. go on to better average success than their seed line contemporaries? It could be statistical mush, of course; we've only three years of data to work with. But it's not difficult to spitball reasons why a team playing out through Dayton has an advantage. Some are tenuous—they've already competed on the tournament surface and under the pressures of one-and-done—while others have more substance, like facing an opponent who has had two or three fewer days to game plan against them compared to a team that knows who it will be playing on Selection Sunday.
On the revenue front, it's important to realize that wins mean money in the NCAA tournament. As Nicole Auerbach pointed out in USA Today, each win in the tournament earns a team another $1.5 million in prize money. That money is earned regardless of which round the team wins; a P.I.G. game earns the winner as much as a win in the Elite Eight. That might be pocket change to a team like Duke, but for the very poor programs entering at a P.I.G. 16-seed line, that's real money. VCU was able to hold onto coach Shaka Smart in some part because their run to the 2011 Final Four was prefixed by a win in Dayton, and another million in their coffers (spread out over six years). And last year's 16-seed P.I.G. winner North Carolina A & T earned a check worth more than their entire basketball budget for the year.
Finally, and less quantifiable, is the value of exposure. While the opening Thursday of the NCAA tournament is the most thrilling day of the year for millions of sports fans, it's also a rather jumbled one; with up to four games going on at any moment, attention is fractured and dislocated unless you're one of a few teams playing a triple-overtime game or marshaling a late upset bid. But tonight, in Dayton, there are two games; tomorrow, there are two more. They are the only games worth watching, and those 40 minutes of basketball will have the full attention of the night's (admittedly smaller) college basketball-viewing public. Rovell could probably put a dollar value on how much that's worth, but we'll skip that and just say—and this isn't a new notion on play-ins—that more people watching your team's games, for whatever reason, is a good thing.
The current four-game P.I.G. format is likely temporary. Efforts to supersize the bracket have been in the works for years, and who's to say that a gigantic, FA Cup-style bracket wouldn't be just as great? But while we can, it's worth looking at what has long been perceived as a negative and seeing how for the teams, their fans, and their budgets, it can very much be a net positive.
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