Is March Madness headed for expansion — and auction?

The big story making the waves this week in sports TV isn’t quite a story yet, but it could well become one.

The NCAA has acknowledged that it is considering opting out of its current contract with CBS for the 65-team men’s basketball tournament ($6 billion over 11 years, expiring after the 2013 season), with an eye on potentially opening an expanded, 96-team tourney up for bidders.

From Steve Wieberg of USA Today:

Its decision must be made by
this summer. Greg Shaheen, a senior vice president who oversees the
tournament and is spearheading the NCAA deliberations, says expansion
is merely one area in which it is examining all options.

Sports Business Journal reported Monday that CBS and Turner are considering a joint bid for an expanded tournament if the NCAA opts out, a scenario that could put the Final Four on cable every other year. Fox and ESPN (along with NBC-Comcast depending how its proposed merger unfolds) are also thought to among the potential bidders.

Within the NCAA, there is much internal debate on how to move forward.

“For any kind of expansion, or even any kind of new broadcast partner, it’s not a one-person decision,” senior writer Andy Katz said. “Would you want to keep it at 65? Would you go to 68? Would you go to 72? Would you go to 96? All these things are in play, and they want to look at these things before they decide to end the current deal.”

One of the risks of such an expansion is that it would dilute the men’s basketball regular season, especially in high-profile conferences where a majority of teams already qualify for the tourney. But certainly few in the game regret the NCAA’s expansion from 32 teams to 64 over the course of seven years, from 1978-1985. (A 65th team was added in 2001 to create a play-in game for the last spot in the tournament.) Ultimately, the lure of 50% more “March Madness” games might be too much to resist.

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