Why 68 is great, and how the NCAA-CBS-Turner package is win-win-no-more-whiny for everyone


In announcing this morning a revived 14-year, $10.8 billion joint deal with CBS and Turner Sports to cover every media angle of its highly-profitable men’s basketball tournament through 2024, the NCAA ducked more criticism from those who feared that TV would water the product down in pushing the number of competitors to 96 teams.

It’s only a modest 68. For now.

The bigger benefit for viewers – all first- and second-round contests will be carried live and in their entirety on either CBS, TNT, TBS or Turner’s truTV channel, rather than be stuffed into a CBS window with cut-ins that only serve to frustrate out-of-market followers for the last several years.

And the benefit for CBS – it gets relief from paying the last three back-loaded years of its $6 billion deal with the NCAA which could have doomed the network’s financial stability. The major compromise for CBS is that, after doing things its way since 1982, it will alternate coverage of the Final Four and title game with TBS starting in 2016.

CBS Sports and News chief Sean McManus said he wouldn’t use the term “bailout” to describe this new arrangement, nor would he admit that the tournament outgrew CBS’ coverage.

“It was a system that worked for 29 years as a practical matter to generate exposure,” he said. “The viewer demand for watching all the games has been greater and the way the viewer consumes media is much different, even from five years ago. To compete in this market place we needed a cable partner. It’s a perfect deal for CBS, Turner and the NCAA, and really the basketball fan. It’s win-win for everyone involved.”

Except, perhaps, for ESPN.

The all-sports network dropped out of the bidding for the package last week. It will continue with a rights package that allows massive coverage of regular-season men’s basketball games, in addition to women’s basketball and many other NCAA championships. ESPN will also likely continue covering the National Invitational Tournament, which could have been scrapped had the NCAA field been pushed to 96 teams.

McManus said giving up the Final Four down the road was “necessary to getting the deal done and be competitive in the market place.”

Also necessary for Turner’s participation in the package was the expansion element of the event.

NCAA interim president Jim Isch said the TV deal was “independent of a decision on expansion.” A recommendation of a 68-team field will be made for the NCAA’s board of directors to make the final call on April 29.

Isch was also emphatic in saying: “There was never a decision to go to 96 teams.”

McManus added: “We are comfortable with 68 teams. That’s what this deal is based on and it meets all our financial and programming needs.”

NCAA vice president of basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen said the groundwork for this new TV business model was laid out by the late president Myles Brand back in 2004.

McManus and Turner Sports president David Levy, who have most recently partnered in coverage of golf’s U.S. Open, began talking about an arrangement between their companies last October.

McManus and Levy said there would be shared production and a consistent look for the tournament, including access to all games with online video streaming with “March Madness On Demand.” The wireless and Internet rights to the tournament will push the total rights fees past $11 billion.

The networks said they will also look into keeping DirecTV’s contribution to the package as the satellite dish owner has been offering all games through a “Mega March Madness” pay package.

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