The debate over a college football playoff has often included a comparison to March Madness, which playoff proponents herald as a shining example of fairness. Although the basketball tournament is indeed inclusive, taking at least one team from every conference, a closer look at the finances and results of the tournament show that even in basketball it’s the big football schools that come out ahead.
Last year, 72 percent of the $184.1 million distributed to conferences from the NCAA based on March Madness performance went to the six conferences who are automatic qualifiers in the Bowl Championship Series. That means just 28 percent was split between the other 25 conferences participating in the tournament.
Of the six AQ conferences, the Big East walked away with the most, pocketing $27.4 million. The SEC and Pac-12 made the least of the AQs at $16.2 million.
The most money distributed to a conference that is not an AQ conference playing football at the highest collegiate level? The $7 million earned by the Atlantic 10.
This phenomenon isn’t relegated to the 2011-12 basketball season. For both the 2010-11 and 2009-10 seasons, the AQ conferences took home 62 percent of the pie.
Although March Madness storylines often focus on the “Cinderella story,” the tournament rarely has that fairy-tale ending. Sure, Butler made it into the championship game in both 2010 and 2011, but when was the last time a team from outside the AQ football conferences won the title? UNLV in 1990.
In the past 25 years, just five of the 50 teams in the championship game came from outside the AQ conferences: Butler, Memphis in 2008, Utah in 1998 and UNLV in 1990.
There also seems to be a direct correlation between finances and making the big tournament.
Louisville, the No. 1 seed, has both the highest revenue and the highest net revenue in the country for a basketball program. The Cardinals’ $42.4 million in basketball revenue in 2011-12 was nearly twice as much as the next-highest school, Syracuse. Of course, the Orange are also in the tournament.
As it turns out, eight of the 10 top-earning basketball programs from 2011-12 are in this year’s tournament: Louisville, Syracuse, Duke, UNC, Arizona, Michigan State, Ohio State and Indiana. Only Kentucky and Texas missed the cut.
Even more telling, nine of the top 10 spending basketball programs made the tournament, with only Kentucky staying home: Duke, Louisville, Syracuse, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Georgetown, Marquette, Michigan State and Indiana.
Despite the disparity of the results, the tournament does promote equality by awarding the same amount per game played in the tournament, with the exception of the championship game, which does not provide any monetary award. This year each “unit” is worth $245,500. Units are awarded to the conference (or, for independents, to the school), and the NCAA encourages conferences to divide that money equally between all conference members.