Dancing Beyond Selection Sunday

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So the tournament selection committee did your alma mater wrong. You thought Rhode Island got robbed and Mississippi State was jobbed.

Well, next year at this time, we all might be talking about how teams No. 97 and No. 98 didn’t make the Bigger Dance. And the Selection Show might be beaming into your living room from Bristol.

Both of these possibilities could become realities this summer if the NCAA decides to opt out of the final three years of its 11-year, $6 billion and expand the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship from 65 to 68 squads or all the way to 96 teams. With the contract backloaded, the final three years are worth some $2.1 million and presumably would be the floor to tip off a new long-term pact, encompassing the TV, advanced media and marketing rights.

The NCAA, which can spin out of its CBS deal without penalty by July 31, sent out a request for proposal last year that reportedly drew interest from a number of parties, proffering various options with cable and broadcast game plans over a 14-year term.

On March 9 at its annual media day supporting the tournament, CBS Sports and News president Sean McManus told the assembled press corps that Black Rock was focused solely on this year’s shining moments and that he expects to be carrying the tournament for years to come. He said that CBS has a history of keeping the properties that it wants — citing The Masters, the PGA, the SEC football and basketball package, and the U.S. Open tennis championships — and he expects to follow suit with the men’s hoops tournament.

All true, but it should be noted that CBS did lose NFL rights from 1994-97 as Fox grabbed the NFC package, before the Tiffany Network reentered the pro football huddle with the smaller-market AFC package in the next rights cycle, kicking off in 1998.

After the March 9 press conference, NCAA senior vice president for basketball and business strategies Greg Shaheen confirmed the widespread interest by various media players in “March Madness” and “others that haven’t been speculated about.” Maybe so.

But certainly the competition, or potential teamwork, from the usual suspects is noteworthy.

Does CBS need Turner Sports and its nearly 100 million-subscriber networks, TNT or TBS, to assist with expanded, early-round bracket action? Or would CBS be willing to alternate later round action with Turner, like the latter teams with Fox on MLB’s National League and American League Championship Series? Remember CBS and TNT paired on the Winter Olympics in 1992, 1994 and 1998 and might do so again for the upcoming Games’ rights. Combined with its “40 Games in 40 Days” NBA playoff franchise, TNT punching a ticket for the college tourney would put an awful lot of basketball on the drama network’s court throughout the spring.

And is CBS College Sports Network, which currently presents two out-of-market games on the tourney’s first two days and some 80 hours of tournament-tied fare, a viable third scoring option here?

Is Fox really willing to jump into the fray, flanked by FX, which was scheduled to carry the Champions League Final, and its cadre of regional sports networks?

Although the deal has yet to past federal muster, Comcast, in concert with NBC Universal, could certainly use the tourney to lift its sports profile.

Of course, ESPN, stocked with monthly subscriber license fees pushing toward the $5 mark, no doubt has the means and would love to up-sell its season-long commitment to college hoops. And wouldn’t it be a hoot to hear Dickie V. calling the Final Four — at least a few times.

DirecTV and its Mega March Madness pay-per-view package could be a casualty of any new alliances.

Despite the still sluggish economy, some observers say the NCAA is wise to roll the dice on a new contract over the certainty of CBS’s $2.1 billion from 2011-13. The tournament has been a key part of CBS Sports’s stable since 1982 and the network likely will pay dearly to hold on to it. The other parties figure to seriously kick the tourney tires before the 2014 and 2016 Olympic rights come up for bid and other key renewals — the NFL and MLB — hit the table for their next rights cycle.

A very interesting under card could also come into play. Back in 2001, ESPN secured the rights to a host of NCAA championships, properties like the women’s basketball tournament, lacrosse, soccer, softball, volleyball and the College World Series, all of which have become programming staples over the past decade. Back then, there really wasn’t any other outlet for those championships and ESPN renewed the rights for some $200 million.

Think that price tag won’t be just a tad higher this go-round. Versus and Universal Sports (yes, there is track and field, swimming, gymnastics and other Olympic-style sports that could naturally air there) could be in the hunt. As the incumbent, the value to ESPN and particularly ESPNU is great.

And what of CBS College Sports? Gaining the rights to these marquee championships would not only enhance its programming lineup significantly, but serve as a lever to boost its 38 million distribution base - which has grown 10 million over the past 12 months — and perhaps keep ESPNU and its 70 million subscribers in its sights.

When CBS re-upped its package with the SEC in the summer of 2008, many were surprised it didn’t secure some live football window for its cable cousin. Hey Vandy, Kentucky and the Mississippi teams have followings and value on Saturday afternoons.

But coming up short on these championship rights would be far more devastating to the long-term prospects of CBS College Sports.

Shaheen said all the right things about the NCAA conducting due diligence for its membership and that many more conversations need to take place before any decisions are made. As the incumbent, CBS could presumably make a preemptive bid as the 2010 tournament unfolds.  There is an NCAA board of directors meeting set for April 29. Either way, it seems clear that tournament is going to get bigger and more expensive for the rights-holder.

The NCAA’s selection process on or before July 31 should go a long way to determining where we watch the tournament and a number of other major college championships well into the next decade.

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