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Is There a Smarter Way to Divvy Up NCAA Tournament Money?

New Orleans–Thanks to its lucrative television and media-rights contracts with CBS and Turner, the NCAA will distribute nearly $190-million to the teams that played in this year’s men’s basketball tournament. That ever-growing pot of money was at the center of a debate held here today on the eve of the Final Four, where several of the country’s wealthier programs are vying for the title.

The SEC, Big 12, Big East, and Big Ten will be paid handsomely for the appearances of Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, and Ohio State. Each victory this year earns a respective team’s conference more than $240,000, paid out over the next six years.

Unlike recent years, when smaller-conference programs like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, and George Mason reached the final rounds, there are no Cinderellas here. And even when those teams make deep runs in the tournament, they are often the only representatives from their leagues. That gives power conferences, most of which receive multiple bids–this year the Big East had eight teams get in–the best chance of piling up the most money.

Jon LeCrone thinks that needs to change. Speaking at an event here focused on revenue distribution in college sports, the commissioner of the Horizon League proposed ending the practice of financially rewarding institutions based on their on-court success in the NCAA tournament.

“What does it mean in a collegiate-based model or a model based on the values of higher education when we have amateur players playing for money?” LeCrone said during a panel organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Sports Business Initiative. “Is that where we should be?”

Handing out money based on tournament victories “may get us to places where we’re doing things that aren’t necessarily value-based,” said LeCrone, a former member of the NCAA’s Division I Men’s Basketball Committee.

Jeffrey Orleans, former executive director of the Ivy League, suggested an alternative: Why not distribute that money equitably across all 340-plus Division I institutions? That would provide less-wealthy institutions with more financial stability, he said, and could lead to more competitive balance in the game.

Professional leagues have done this for years, distributing revenue from media and marketing deals equitably across all teams, said Glenn Wong, a professor of sport management and the faculty athletics representative at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

That’s a noble idea, but one that John Lombardi, LSU’s president, brushed aside. “I can imagine going to my board, saying, ‘Boy, this would be really good for intercollegiate sports in general if LSU would distribute a lot of its revenue to the poverty-stricken institutions in Louisiana that are trying to run Division I-A programs and are losing their shirts.’”

He pointed out that athletics was not the only part of higher education where there are big funding gaps between wealthy and poorer institutions. Ninety-five percent of federal research grants are controlled by 150 colleges, he said, with the top 25 institutions controlling 45 percent of the money.

“Intercollegiate athletics is not the only superstar, high-money, highly concentrated activity that American universities engage in for big bucks,” he said. “So, let’s not focus only on athletics as the big-money part of higher education. We have big money in lots of places. And it is very similarly distributed in other places in terms of concentration and superstar compensation.”

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