J. Samuel Walker
Over a period of several decades, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) men’s basketball championship tournament evolved from a modest event that reached a limited audience to a widely celebrated national spectacle. The gradual growth of the tournament in terms of fan interest, media attention, and generation of income reflected the increasing popularity of college basketball and television coverage of it. The turning point in the sport’s signature event came following the 1973–1974 season, when the NCAA decided to break precedent by allowing more than one team per conference to participate. At the time, the organization had no inkling that this change would set the stage for the phenomenon we now call “March Madness.”
The NCAA tournament was held for the first time in March 1939 in direct response to the founding of the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) the previous year. The initial offering of the NIT, sponsored by New York’s Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association, was hailed as an artistic and financial success. Consequently, a group of college coaches pushed for a postseason championship tournament that did not depend on the preferences of New York sportswriters. They convinced the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) to approach the NCAA about sponsoring a national playoff. The NCAA agreed to sanction the proposed tournament but declined to accept any financial responsibility. Therefore, the NABC decided to pay for event costs.
The first NCAA tournament included eight teams. Oregon captured the championship by defeating Ohio State, 46–33, in the finals at Northwestern University. The attendance for the three rounds of the tournament was a disappointing fifteen thousand, and the NABC suffered a loss of $2,531. The deficit was such a blow that the NABC asked the NCAA to step in. Despite the shortfalls in attendance and income, the NCAA saw considerable promise in the tournament and accepted the request. The following season in 1940, the championship game drew ten thousand fans to watch Indiana rout Kansas in Kansas City, and the NCAA cleared a profit of more than $9,500. The schools that made the finals each received a payout of $752.40.
From those humble beginnings, the NCAA tournament gradually expanded in size and prestige. By 1953 the organization had decided to invite as many as twenty-three teams to participate, including fourteen conference champions who qualified automatically and up to nine independents chosen by the organization’s basketball committee. The exact size of the tournament varied; for the next twenty years, the number of teams fluctuated between twenty-two and twenty-five as the automatic bids crept up to sixteen.
College basketball, which had long trailed college football in media exposure and fan support, gained increased popularity and drew record crowds during the 1950s. The arrival of college hoops as a major gate attraction, however, did not immediately make the NCAA tournament a top-tier national sporting event. The key to the tournament’s eventual national appeal was television coverage, and at first networks and sponsors showed little interest. The NCAA’s title game made its initial appearance on national television in 1954, but it was available only where local stations paid a syndicator for access. The NCAA charged the syndicator a mere $7,500 for rights. Local stations showed the championship contest between LaSalle College and Bradley University as a delayed broadcast. Even in LaSalle’s home town of Philadelphia the game was not aired until 11:10 p.m., after prime time programs such as boxing and the Martha Raye Show.
The NCAA’s lean years in national television coverage continued until 1963, when a prosperous syndicator, Sports Network Incorporated (SNI), offered $150,000 for broadcast rights to the championship game for six years. It sold access to the 1963 title match-up to 125 stations. For the first time the NCAA championship was shown live in prime time on national television, and viewers were treated to a thrilling, overtime victory for Chicago of Loyola over the University of Cincinnati. SNI was especially pleased that the game outdrew the popular Western television shows Gunsmoke and Have Gun, Will Travel.
Nevertheless, the major networks continued to show disdain for the commercial appeal of college basketball. They changed their position only after a regular-season, made-for-television match-up between top-ranked UCLA and the second-ranked University of Houston in January 1968 was broadcast by another sports syndicator, the TVS Television Network. The game attracted 52,693 fans to Houston’s Astrodome stadium and an estimated television audience of twenty million, the largest in professional or college basketball history. Later that year, when the NCAA opened bidding for tournament broadcast rights, NBC won the contract by offering $500,000 for two years, which was ten times the average annual amount that SNI had paid. In 1972 the NCAA reached a new television income milestone when NBC agreed to a price of $1 million for two years. The 1973 national championship game between UCLA and Memphis State, shown for the first time in prime time on a Monday, attracted a record number of viewers, estimated at thirty nine million.
Basketball fans love March Madness for its early round upsets, such as #11 Dayton beating #3 Syracuse in 2014 to reach the Sweet Sixteen. But the NCAA basketball tournament hasn’t always been a massively popular sporting event. Photo by Chad Cooper (https://www.flickr.com/photos/chadcooperphotos/13372123064) under a Creative Commons 2.0 License (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).
It was now apparent that the NCAA tournament had emerged as a top-drawer national sports event. It also seemed apparent to some insiders that the tournament’s format, which had been in place since 1953, needed improving. As early as 1970 Tom Scott, athletic director at Davidson College and chair of the NCAA’s basketball committee, took the lead in lobbying for changes. He urged that the tournament field be expanded to thirty-two teams and that worthy conference runners-up be eligible. He argued that expansion was advisable because of the growing number of NCAA members and of conferences that were clamoring for an automatic bid. Scott also insisted that including well-qualified second-place conference finishers would help ensure that the best teams in the country would compete for the national title, whether or not they won their own league crowns.
Scott’s proposals received support from NCAA executive director Walter Byers and his staff, but they met strong opposition from other members of the basketball committee. The committee’s approval was an essential first step for changing existing arrangements, and it voted unanimously against both aspects of expansion in July 1971 (with Scott abstaining). Scott’s committee colleagues were particularly troubled about allowing teams that did not win their own conference a chance to play for the national title. In 1972, after “extensive discussion,” the committee voted in favor of expanding the tournament field to thirty-two teams, but it held fast against the more controversial step of inviting more than one team per conference.
The events of the 1973–1974 season finally persuaded the NCAA to revise its rules. Coaches, athletic directors, fans, and writers complained about an unjust system when two excellent teams, Indiana University and the University of Southern California, failed to qualify for the tournament after placing second in their conference standings. Followers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) were even more impassioned in their protests. The ACC was one of two major conferences that held its own tournament to determine its champion. In 1974 an outstanding Maryland team lost in overtime in the finals to a North Carolina State squad that eventually captured the national championship. The quality of play was so exquisite that some experts consider it the greatest game in college basketball history. To many informed observers, it illustrated the folly of denying highly-ranked teams that fell short of their conference title a trip to the NCAA tournament while including conference champions with losing records or weak schedules. The poster child for critics was the University of Texas, which represented the Southwest Conference in the 1974 tournament despite its ungainly 10–12 record.
Within five months after the 1973–1974 season ended, the NCAA voted, with little discussion or dissent, to allow two teams per conference to play in the tournament (the second would not necessarily be the runner-up). The organization sought to make modest improvements in its selection process. It did not realize that the new format opened the gates to what became commonly known as “March Madness” by the late 1970s.
The size of the tournament and the television money it commanded grew rapidly after 1974. The NCAA expanded the field to forty in 1979, then to forty-eight in 1980 (with no limit on the number of teams per conference), then to sixty-four in 1985, and finally to sixty-eight in 2011. The income it received increased even more dramatically—from the $48 million that CBS paid in 1981 for three years to the $10.8 billion that it, along with the Turner Broadcasting System, offered for fourteen years in 2011. The price that television networks were willing to pay was obviously tied to the enormous popularity of the tournament. Its appeal was enhanced after 1980 when ESPN, founded two years earlier, began to show early round games with their crowd-pleasing potential for upsets of powerful teams by lightly-regarded opponents. The expansion of the brackets after the 1973–1974 season, the blanket television coverage, the ever-present possibility of upsets, and the inherent tension of the march to the national championship made the NCAA tournament a must-see attraction and to both devout and casual fans, a cherished American institution.
J. Samuel Walker is co-author, with Randy Roberts, of When March Became Madness: How the 1973–1974 Season Transformed College Basketball (forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press). Walker is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.