McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

March 23, 2014

Could the NCAA Tournament work for other sports?

By Matt Goisman
Sports Writer

McALESTER — When it comes to profitably, no league rakes it in like the National Football League. The NFL made $10 billion last season, according to reports by USA Today and CBS News.

No other league can match that, though Major League Baseball came close with an $8 billion payday in 2013.

If anyone’s going to ever beat the NFL, it’ll most likely be MLB. And how could they do it?

By stealing a page from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s playbook.

Over the last decade, advertising revenue from the NCAA’s annual men’s basketball tournament has skyrocketed from $454 million in 2004 to $1.15 billion in 2013, an NBCNews.com article said Thursday. The NCAA has the most profitable postseason in America.

Why is ad revenue so high? One answer could be that tournament brackets are just so fun to fill out, which is why every year millions of people do it.

There’s a decent chance the majority of people who fill out brackets aren’t diehard college basketball fans. And even among the ones who do regularly watch college basketball, how many among them are so familiar with the landscape of teams that they can make an informed decision about all 67 games?

As an answer to that question, consider this: In the Yahoo! Sports Quicken Loans Bracket Challenge, in which filling out a perfect bracket could be worth $1 billion, it took just 25 games before every bracket in the competition had at least one wrong answer.

The NCAA Tournament and its brackets make money precisely because you don’t have to be an expert in collegiate basketball to play. There’s no betting lines or over/unders — you just pick who you think will win and move on.

In many cases, you don’t even have to pay to play, and the prize is often just some minor bragging rights for a couple weeks. But once you’ve filled out a bracket, your interest in watching Iowa State play North Carolina Central (Iowa State won 93-75) goes way up, as does the advertising value of the Iowa St.-NC Central game.

No other league, not even the mighty NFL with it’s awe-inspiring Super Bowl, appeals to the general public the way the NCAA Tournament does. And the NCAA’s pulled that off by basically turning the act of watching a game into a game itself.

So could the NCAA Tournament work for other sports or professional leagues? For football, probably not — football teams play only once a week because of how physically destructive the sport is, and so an NCAA-like tournament would take five or six weeks to finish.

But playing multiple games in a row is nothing new for professional baseball players, and basketball and hockey players can usually recover from a game with just a day or two of practice. So if MLB, the National Basketball Association or National Hockey League wants to get more people watching their teams, perhaps it should institute a tournament like the NCAA’s.

It wouldn’t be all that hard to create such a tournament, even though all three of the aforementioned leagues have only 30 teams. The two teams who competed in the previous championship — the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, for example — would receive one-seeds and automatic births into the round of 16.

The losers of the league championships — the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers — would also earn one-seeds, but they’d have to play in the round of 28. Lower seeds would be based on the previous season’s records and postseason standings — division winners could earn two-seeds, etc. — and from there it’d be a single-elimination just like in March Madness.

The NBA, NHL and MLB could all replace portions of their preseasons with such a tournament. For baseball, doing this could also take the place of the World Baseball Classic, which so far has done little more than confirm that while baseball is America’s pastime (whatever that means), the best baseball players are no longer born in America (Japan won the first two WBCs, then the Dominican Republic won in 2013).

Let’s be honest: no one cares about the World Baseball Classic. No one even cares about Olympic baseball, which is why the International Olympic Committee dropped it after the 2008 Summer Games and won’t bring it back until at least 2024.

The World Baseball Classic is just a cash-grab by commissioner Bud Selig in a month that most baseball fans couldn’t care less about. And if Selig is just after the fans’ money, why not make it fun and turn a portion of Spring Training into a five-game tournament, complete with a clever name and bracket challenges hosted by ESPN and Yahoo! Sports?

This strategy has made the NCAA Tournament the most profitable postseason in the county. There’s no reason it couldn’t work for other leagues as well.

Contact Matt Goisman at mgoisman@mcalesternews.com.