The correct number of teams in the NCAA Tournament is 64. Not 65 teams, which has been at least the number for most of my life. Not 68, which is the number of teams in the current format. Not 72, which might be the case in the future. Not 76, or 96, or even 128. 2000 was the last year that the bracket featured 64 teams, and since then the NCAA has tried and succeeded to sneak a few more games in.
One of the most important aspects of March Madness is that every game is televised, even those happening at the same time. With four channels showing the myriad of games, as long as you have enough screens, you can watch every game of the tournament. Don’t get the cable channels? No problem; all the games are free online or with a mobile app. No subscription necessary. Everyone watches, not just students and alumni, not only those restricted by geography. It’s a national spectacle of which everyone wants to be a part. More games mean more tickets sold. More on-air time offers more commercials and advertising revenue. More teams bring more fans who travel around the country. Simply put: more games, more money.
There is also the notion that expanding the field prevents deserving teams from being left out. Yet in reality, it merely changes the threshold for what merits a bid. Look at what happened in college football. During the BCS era, debate swirled over which two teams were most worthy of competing in the national championship game. Now with four teams in the playoff, teams five through eight are suddenly comparing their schedules. If the playoff expands to eight teams, don’t expect team nine to go quietly. The same is true in March Madness. Regardless of how many teams are included, there will always be a “first team out.” If anything, a larger field magnifies the issue, because there are more teams at the bottom of the field used for comparison to the first teams out.
In 2001, the NCAA tournament added a 65th team, a “play-in game” to determine which small conference school had the chance to lose to a 1 seed. The result was inconsequential, no one waited to see the result before filling out the bracket, and only a minute fraction of fans picked “Play-in Winner” to advance to the round of 32. Sure it was technically part of the tournament, but most viewed the play in game as a preliminary game before the actual tournament started. Now 8 teams compete to be a part of the field of 64: 4 would-be 16 seeds and 4 others that are usually a 10, 11, or 12 seed. This “First Four” has become what amounts to a kick-off to the tournament, on the eve of the first full slate of games on Thursday. I’m sure that was part of the NCAA’s intention, plus to get additional airtime starting on Tuesday. Thankfully, they returned to the original naming convention, referring to the round of 64 as the “first round” (there was a brief interlude of confusion when the First Four was the first round, and most teams started in the “second round”). These games are certainly part of the tournament; teams from these games often win additional games in the rounds of 64 or 32. And if we do consider the First Four to be the opening round of the tournament (whatever the name is), what is the purpose of a four-game opening round? Do we really need this warm-up round before jumping into the real first round for which everyone is waiting? I hardly think so.
The NCAA tournament should not just be about making more money. To be fair, it’s already hugely profitable. And preventing the first teams out from feeling snubbed is not a good reason to expand; there will always be someone on the short end of the draw. March Madness should go back to 64 teams. It’s not the MLB or NFL; we don’t need wild-card games. Besides, a 64-team bracket fits nicely on a sheet of paper. It’s neat; it’s elegant; it’s symmetrical. That way every team has the same number of games to get to the Final Four. The other “perfect bracket” numbers would be 16 or 32 (too few) or 128 (far too many). This is March Madness; it already has all the magic you could possibly expect from a single tournament. We don’t need to change it; in fact we need it to back to 64. 64 is the right number. This is nothing against the teams that play their way into the First Four and continue to win (remember VCU’s Final Four run?). This is nothing against the gift of more free basketball or the players who just want one shot on the biggest stage. And this is certainly nothing against the great fans of Dayton, Ohio who spectacularly host the First Four every year. This is about March Madness. It doesn’t need a hype-up event; it’s ready to jump in full swing on the first day. It doesn’t need play-in games; that’s what conference tournaments are for. It doesn’t need to be bigger; this makes it more meaningful to the teams that get in. But most importantly, it doesn’t need to succumb to the idea that the tournament’s value is tied up in money, numbers, or ratings. March Madness doesn’t need to be molded according to a metric or formula. March Madness is exactly what it is, and it is spectacular. Just let it exist in its purest form; then just appreciate the magic that happens next.
featured image: Sporting News, modified