NCAA Recommends Expanding March Madness to 90 Teams

Does a 90-team college basketball tournament really make sense, or is it pure madness?
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  • An NCAA committee report suggests increasing Division I playoff participation to 25% of teams.
  • That translates into roughly 90 teams in the March Madness basketball tournament.
  • The tournament has expanded over time and currently features 68 teams.
  • Many think such expansion would be ludicrous, but some coaches embrace the idea.

It's that time of year again, when sports aficionados and casual fans alike showcase their prognosticating powers by predicting the outcomes of 67 games in a single-elimination college basketball tournament.

Yes, that means March Madness, a beloved rite of spring brimming with bracket-busters, buzzer-beaters, blue bloods, Cinderellas, net-cutting, and One Shining Moment.

Now featuring 68 teams, the tournament has expanded steadily since its inception in 1939. If the NCAA has its way, within a year that figure will rise to 90.

Is a 90-team tournament a good idea? Some think so, while others believe the NCAA has gone bonkers.

NCAA Committee Recommends Playoff Expansion

This recommendation lies buried halfway through a January report from the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee. In an effort to "grant greater access to championships for well-qualified teams," the committee suggests expanding playoff participation to 25% of teams in sports sponsored by more than 200 colleges.

With 363 NCAA Division I basketball teams, this translates into roughly 90 teams in tournament play.

The report also advocates for "increasing championship budgets" and "elevating the travel experience for student-athletes."

Championships, the committee concluded in its report, are a "pinnacle of Division I student-athletes' college experience and an area that should continue to be prioritized through an increase in the allocation of Association resources in the years ahead."

These recommendations are slated for review in June, with possible implementation in January 2024. Next March, you might be filling out an office-pool bracket consisting of 90 teams.

Some Question the NCAA's Motives

Beyond the altruistic concerns of affording more student-athletes an opportunity to realize the "pinnacle" of competition, this recommendation might appear to some as a simple cash-grab.

After all, the NCAA makes the bulk of its money through the men's March Madness tournament. Of the NCAA's roughly $1 billion in revenue last year, about $870 million came from this one event, which averaged 10.7 million viewers per game.

In turn, the organization distributed some $670 million among member institutions for scholarships and operations.

More teams and more games would mean more money for the NCAA and the television networks. Naturally, the networks would have to comply with any expansion efforts. The NCAA has a deal with CBS and Turner that runs through 2032.

And why wouldn't the networks approve expansion and additional revenue? When the NCAA was shopping for a television home for March Madness in 2010, it advocated expanding the field to a whopping 96 teams. The proposal never gained sufficient traction and was opposed by many college coaches.

To be fair, the tournament has indeed grown over time. When it debuted in 1939, it featured eight teams (Oregon beat Ohio State for the title). It continued to steadily add teams over the ensuing decades, landing at 64 in 1985.

To accommodate the formation of the Mountain West Conference in 1999, the tournament expanded to 65 teams for 2000, adding a "play-in" game. And in 2011, coinciding with the new CBS/Turner contract, the tournament added three more play-in games, resulting in today's field of 68 — not quite the NCAA-recommended 96, but an increase nonetheless.

Expansion has enveloped college football as well. Beginning in 2026, the College Football Playoff will mushroom from four teams to 12. The NCAA doesn't stand to profit from this development, but the networks certainly do.

(Evidently, college football wouldn't fall under the NCAA's "25% participation" rule even though more than 200 colleges compete in Division I. Of the 254 teams, only 129 constitute the Football Bowl Subdivision and, therefore, technically can vie for a national title. Although a 64-team college football playoff would be quite a hoot.)

Many Object to Proposed Expansion

Not everyone is a fan of the 90-team recommendation, nor do many insiders take it seriously.

First off, are there truly 90 teams worthy of championship competition?

"Going to 90, you'd roll on the floor laughing at the quality of teams," one NCAA source told CBS Sports. "It's unfathomable that someone could think that's a good idea."

Others fall into the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" category.

Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel argues the March Madness tournament is a "throwback event of enduring popularity" that was "perfect at 64 and tolerable at 68" teams. Participating in the tournament should represent a significant achievement, he writes, one that becomes less impressive as more teams are added.

What's more, Wetzel claims, adding rounds would make it more difficult for upstart teams — Cinderellas — to advance far into the tournament. And expansion would largely benefit mediocre teams in major conferences, he contends, not mid-majors perched on the bubble.

"Don't do it," Wetzel exhorts the NCAA powers that be. "Don't mess with March Madness."

Similarly, college basketball analyst Andy Katz, writing for Fox Sports, claims there's "zero appetite" for expansion beyond, say, 72 teams.

"So, don't worry everyone," he wrote. "The NCAA Tournament isn't going to change. At most, it will only be tweaked slightly."

Fans nationwide seem to agree that more doesn't always mean merrier.

Also, don't forget Title IX implications demanding the women's tournament expand accordingly. Women's basketball doesn't enjoy nearly the same parity as the men's game, so imagine the lopsided outcomes should that field suddenly sport 90 teams.

And yet … some coaches actually embrace the idea.

University of Miami coach Jim Larrañaga envisions a 96-team field encompassing the would-be National Invitational Tournament (NIT) participants.

Syracuse University coach Jim Boeheim says he advocated for significant tournament expansion 25 years ago.

"People want to say it's mediocrity, but it's not," Boeheim said. "There's just good balance. There's a lot more teams that deserve to be in the tournament."

Regardless of the outcome of the NCAA's recommendation, argues Wake Forest University coach Steve Forbes, the tournament's popularity won't wane.

"If it stays the same, it stays the same, and it's great," Forbes said. "If it goes to 90 or whatever the number is, it will still be great. People will watch it. I hear a lot of people saying, 'Oh, you'd ruin it.' What people aren't going to watch the NCAA Tournament?"