ESPN Who? CBS, Turner Keep NCAA Tourney

Question No. 1: Can a cooperative CBS News-CNN deal be far behind? Just asking.

Fending off a bid by ESPN, CBS has teamed with Turner Broadcasting to retain the NCAA tournament in a massive 14-year deal, one that will see the two networks televise every game of the early rounds.

The big prize for Turner is that the Final Four will alternate between
CBS and Turner beginning in 2016 through the deal’s end in 2024 —
marking another major sporting event that will no longer be exclusively
carried on broadcast TV.

According to CBS Sports Prez Sean McManus, giving up the Final Four in alternating years was “necessary to get this deal done.”

After this year’s tournament, hanging on to the franchise — even if that meant sharing the rights — doubtless seemed like a good idea to CBS, despite the fact that the tourney’s male demos aren’t necessarily a bull’s-eye with the network’s primetime profile.

Ncaalogo The NCAA also announced that the 65-team (including a play-in game) event will expand to 68 teams, which is at least preferable to the “Everybody, including crappy teams, gets in” idea of 96 teams that was floated earlier. (Under that system, the top 32 teams would have waited while the next 64 played to see who joined them in the second round. In college sports, like “Wall Street,” the phrase “Greed is good” comes with strings attached.)

The irony is that while the NCAA offers the sporting world’s best playoff system in basketball, it still has the worst in football with its Bowl Championship Series and has steadfastly resisted any kind of playoff, including a bowls-plus-one format that would settle a lot of arguments.

In a conference call Thursday, an NCAA rep said that the organization had “very competitive offers to consider,” which is doubtless an understatement. With ESPN voraciously swallowing up sports rights, it took two networks in concert to fight them off.

“This has been one of the true marquee events for CBS Sports for 29 years,” said McManus, noting that the Turner relationship “adds a whole new level of exposure. … National exposure for every game of the NCAA tournament.”

Of course, the billions that the NCAA now has in its coffers will likely raise questions about fairly compensating student-athletes. But that’s an issue for another day — as is the question of whether the tourney might grow to 96 teams down the road.

NCAA interim president Jim Isch gave a weaselly answer, saying only that 68 is “probably where we will be,” without ruling out further expansion. “Everything is still on the table,” he said, citing an upcoming meeting of the NCAA’s board next week. Frankly, I’ve never heard a guy speak so many words without actually saying anything.

He might have a future in television.

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