As much as the NCAA or athletic administrators want to deny it, television revenue controls college sports. I believe that deep down, the leaders of college athletics ultimately do want to “maximize the student-athlete experience” and “offer tremendous access to education through sports.” However, I also believe that those honorable and virtuous goals are taking a back seat to maximizing television revenue. The best evidence of this is undoubtedly the latest round of conference realignment, but there are plenty of other examples. The latest is a recent change in a long-standing postseason basketball tournament.
Last week, the NCAA announced changes to the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) format. Up until now, regular-season conference champions who failed to reach the NCAA Tournament received an automatic bid to the NIT. But starting in the 2023-2024 season, this will no longer be the case.
Instead, the top two teams in the NET rankings from each of the major six conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC) that did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament will earn the first 12 NIT automatic bids and have the right to host first-round games.
This change will inevitably have a negative effect on low- and mid-major programs who have ultra-successful regular seasons but come up short in their conference tournaments, where their league’s auto bid to the 68-team NCAA Tournament is earned. For example, the 2013 Robert Morris basketball team won the NEC regular season title with an impressive 14-4 league record. While they came up short in the NEC Tournaments, they earned an auto-bid to the NIT, where they defeated Kentucky. This was undoubtedly a monumental moment for the program and the university itself. However, these stories likely won’t be as prevalent under this new format. The Robert Morris’ of the world will not be guaranteed a national showcase opportunity through the NIT anymore.
In its announcement of changes to the NIT for 2024, the NCAA said that it will "select the 20 best teams available to complete the tournament's 32-team field" after the 12 automatic bids are handed out to power conference schools. The other four hosting schools will be the "best" of the 20 at-large teams.
Non-power conference commissioners have understandably expressed their distaste for the move.
"I was surprised and disappointed in the action announced today by the NIT Board of Managers, approximately one week prior to the start of the 2023-24 season," said MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. "To make such a substantive change to the NIT structure without providing a satisfactory explanation or building the foundation for such a change is troubling and leaves student-athletes, coaches, and fans in a state of uncertainty. Today's announcement is leading me to focus even more on the discussion around the possible expansion of the NCAA Tournament and I will marshal our membership's attention to that issue."
From a legal standpoint, what allows the NCAA to do this without approval from many stakeholders in college basketball? The NIT, which the NCAA bought from ESPN in 2005, is technically under a separate LLC from the NCAA governance structure. This enabled NCAA higher ups to avoid going through the proper channels (AKA: low- and mid-major administrators) to get clearance on the significant format change less than two weeks before the season tips off.
The change in format is likely a direct response to a new postseason tournament expected to begin as early as 2025. Recently, Fox Sports announced it's working on putting together a postseason men's college basketball tournament that would feature power conference schools that did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
In a world where television revenue is king, the NCAA apparently feels that maintaining a tournament with low to mid-major programs with small fan and alumni is not feasible anymore. As deserving and motivated teams like a 24-11 Robert Morris or a 26-7 North Texas might be to play postseason basketball, the unfortunate reality is that an underachieving 17-15 Michigan or a 16-16 Florida will generate more television ratings.
The NCAA Tournament itself currently has an uncertain future. Rumors of further expansion have certainly been floated over the years and how those additional bids could be divvied up will be a large point of contention. As the power conference schools continually consolidate, could low and mid-majors be boxed out of March Madness like they are being boxed out of the NIT? Hopefully not, but it’s certainly on the table.
In all of this, it will be interesting to see how the NIT fits into the college basketball ecosphere moving forward. For years, the tournament had played its semifinals and final at Madison Square Garden in New York. However, the tournament has shifted its finals to Las Vegas and Indianapolis in recent years. The NCAA Tournament will obviously always be the most popular postseason college basketball tournament, but will the NIT continue to be second in line? That remains to be seen.