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Bracket science

Dec. 23, 2002

By Gary T. Brown
The NCAA News

Most people think an NCAA sports committee's toughest job is to select the championship field. While no sports committee veteran would disagree that selections are difficult, they might argue that placing teams in the bracket is even tougher than selecting them.

Never has that been more true than now.

First, the number of championships and the number of teams and student-athletes that compete in them have grown significantly over the past two decades. While one might think that would make a sports committee's job easier, the baseline complexities of a cut-off between who's in and who's out still exist no matter the size of the field. Second, as various championships gain exposure and popularity, their guardians aspire for a field that truly reveals the best team through a "national" competition. While that's an admirable goal, seeding a 64-team bracket nationally and abandoning a regional focus in the preliminary rounds is expensive, especially when the championship doesn't produce revenue.

Throw in complications from 9/11 and the plot thickens. After last year's terrorist attacks, Division I championships in sports other than basketball had to bracket regionally in order to reduce the number of flights. Due in large part to those travel precautions, Division I's championship budget realized about a $6 million savings. Security concerns have abated somewhat, which has prompted a return to more preliminary-round flights, but those significant savings are hard to ignore in any future bracketing policy review.

So how do sports committees balance fiscal responsibility, bracket integrity and a quality student-athlete championship experience given the political tug and pull among their constituents?

The Championships/Competition Cabinet's bracket/format subcommittee is trying to provide some answers. That group has been studying the issue for the past 18 months, even before the September 11 tragedies, and after much deliberation has decided to test the waters with a proposal it believes best provides for a fair and equitable championship that doesn't compromise the "national" nature of most sports.

The subcommittee in November asked sports committees for feedback on the following formula:

  • Seed a maximum of 25 percent of the bracket, except for those brackets where 25 percent does not make sense (for example, allowing a 48-team bracket to seed the top 16 rather than the top 12).

  • First-round conference match-ups should be avoided (first round is defined as first contest).

  • Higher-seeded teams should be given consideration in hosting (taking into account other factors such as missed class time, quality and availability of the facility and other necessary accommodations, attendance history, financial considerations, geography, quality of the student-athlete experience, championship atmosphere, and accessibility of fans, etc.).

  • After seeding the approved number of teams, teams should be placed in brackets per Bylaw 31.1.3.2.6 (that is, geographically) with consideration given to missed class time, the quality of the student-athlete experience, championship atmosphere and accessibility of fans. DePaul University Athletics Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who chairs the Championships/Competition Cabinet, said the review began not so much because the process was broken, but because championships growth dictated a check-up. The cabinet also has heard from the Board of Directors about using championships allocations as efficiently as possible, given the tight economic times.

    "The only way to ensure whether we were accomplishing that was with a thorough review," Ponsetto said. "The proposal is a collection of ideas from constituent groups, including sports committees, coaches associations and conferences, about what's appropriate for certain championships and how we can most effectively promote the programs and enhance the quality of the student-athlete experience.

    "We want to develop a consensus, but it brought to the surface what the options are more than anything else," said Ponsetto.

    Committee feedback
    The proposal emerged from a review of four alternatives ranging from an exclusively national-seeded bracket to an exclusively regional-seeded bracket. Another alternative featured a "bands" concept, where lower-seeded teams would be grouped according to geography. Ultimately, the bracket/format subcommittee chose the 25 percent model, feeling it was the best blend of competitive equity and fiscal responsibility.

    The next step is for sports committees to chime in on how the proposal fits -- or doesn't fit -- with their respective events. At first blush, given the notion that more is better, limiting seeding to 25 percent would figure to ruffle every committee's feathers, but early feedback says that's not the case.

    Committees are realizing the need to balance seeding with other factors in order to grow their sports. Since sports are at different levels, a regional focus in preliminary rounds may be more important to one sport than it is to another sport that already has established more national roots and could draw crowds anywhere. Thus, an exclusively national-seeded bracket may not be for everyone. Even men's basketball, the king of the national-seeded bracket, realized significant cost savings and boosted attendance at the same time when it went to the "pod" approach for preliminary rounds last year.

    Charlie Carr, senior associate athletics director at Florida State and chair of another national sport, said his Division I Baseball Committee has been doing basically what the proposal suggests for the last couple of years and has thought it to be effective. He said his committee has seeded the top teams and tried to acknowledge and reward their success. It then has used a geographical balance that helps the sport financially and reduces the strain on team travel.

    "From my position," Carr said, "I'm pleased about how the proposal has worked out, and I think as all championships play out, we'll see that it's a good product -- a good method for administering our championships."

    As a sport with a national draw, baseball might have an advantage in being able to limit seeding and still provide well-attended preliminary-round match-ups. Men's ice hockey, which doesn't have the national sponsorship of baseball, or the bracket size, is in a different situation. But Ian McCaw, who chairs the Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee, said this year's bracket expansion from 12 to 16 will alleviate what otherwise might have been some concerns.

    "Last year, there was some concern about the integrity of the championship because some people felt there were stronger teams in one region over another," McCaw said. "A lot of that concern will be negated this year with bracket expansion. Seeding the top four and ensuring that they are at the four regional sites will alleviate a lot of the concerns in the hockey community."

    The revenue wicket
    Ponsetto knows that not every committee will see the proposal as a perfect fit. She said the cabinet expects some counterproposals from various committees, which she said the cabinet will be happy to consider as long as they are within the philosophical boundaries the bracket/format subcommittee has established.

    "We're not trying to restrict sports committees," Ponsetto said. "If anything, we're trying to encourage sports committees to be creative and tell us what they think does achieve the quality experience for the student-athlete in a fiscally responsible way and provides the opportunity for the best teams to make it to the finals."

    But one complication with that is a cabinet recommendation to limit options based on whether the championship produces revenue. The cabinet has asked the Management Council to clarify Bylaw 31.1.3.2.6 (nonrevenue-championship site assignment) to read: "In championships that do not generate net revenue, pairings shall be based primarily on the teams' geographical proximity to one another, regardless of their region, in order to avoid air travel in preliminary rounds whenever possible. Teams' seeding relative to one another may be taken into consideration when establishing pairings if such a pairing does not result in air travel that otherwise could be avoided."

    That may be fiscally responsible, but it may place some committees in a tough spot. For example, the Division I Women's Volleyball Committee faces a dilemma: Women's volleyball has strong national sponsorship, but its championship does not generate revenue. Thus, the committee would like to seed more than it may be allowed to do.

    "We would change the word 'maximum' to 'minimum,' " said committee Chair Lisa Love. "When you look at any kind of bracket integrity and the road to a national title, seeding is clearly the way to go for an equitable path for all teams based on their regular-season performance."

    Love, who is a senior associate director of athletics at the University of Southern California, understands that volleyball may be unique in its growth stage. She also understands -- and appreciates -- the fact that the cabinet helped pave the way for predetermined sites for the championship's four regionals beginning in 2003, one of the clear signs that a championship has "arrived."

    But with a competitive 64-team field, Love said the committee nonetheless would prefer being able to seed more than 16.

    "In a perfect setting, you would seed the entire bracket, whatever that bracket may be, so that you have a pure national championship tournament highly invested upon three-month regular-season performance," she said. "With any university, the lion's share of their investment in the program is in their regular season. That financial investment is for the ability to host in December.

    "What happened last year with regard to some of the seeded teams was that we could applaud them for their three-month regular season, but then we put them in the air two weeks in a row and said, 'Good luck.' They earned the right to stay at home, but couldn't."

    Love said volleyball's quandary is complicated by the fact that several powers reside in areas that require fly-ins.

    "What do you do with Hawaii, Nebraska, Arizona -- schools that do a great job of hosting but are located in remote areas?" Love said. "You can't deny hosting opportunities to these schools with a concrete ruling. I understand there are philosophical guidelines, but one of them ought to be what you consider a national championship to be -- whether it is competitive integrity or whether it's a regional concept based on crowds and revenue. I believe you can blend all of that, and that they're not exclusive of one another."

    Decision near
    Love and others with a stake in the decision will get a chance to air their opinions at the NCAA Convention in January. The bracket/format proposal is one of three topics slated for discussion during the January 13 Division I forum.

    Ponsetto hopes that discussion will help the cabinet reach a clearer decision at its February meeting. She acknowledged that the toughest part will be reconciling how finances fit into the picture. The fiscal issue was sticky enough, in fact, that the subcommittee was not told what the savings were from last year's restrictions.

    "The subcommittee was aware that there were cost savings," Ponsetto said, "but members were not aware of what those total savings were. We wanted to cast the net as far and wide as we could without constraints.

    "What I think we'll find is that reasonable people will agree that there is a good middle ground as to how we can achieve what we need to in terms of the quality experience, fiscal responsibility and access to the best teams," she said. "We can't discount the cost savings in our analysis, but at the same time, the decisions won't be driven solely by finances."

    That would be good news to Love.

    "As a committee, you really want to help the growth of the sport, but I think you do that by putting together a business plan -- evaluate the sites and the seeds, rank teams and keep them as close as you can to ensure large crowds, but do things that don't jeopardize competitive equity," she said. "But it's hard to do that if your guidelines are very rigid. Then you end up having to prioritize -- is it competitive integrity, is it regionalization, is it revenue? It should be a blend, where one doesn't yield to the other."

    In the end, it's another complicated facet of a complicated committee function -- that of team selection and placement in the bracket. The goal may be simple -- to determine a national champion -- but like minds will disagree on how best to get there. Reaching consensus on a seeding proposal figures to be just as complex as choosing the 64th team.

    "There's not a committee in any sport that concludes their efforts and feels they've done perfectly," said the baseball committee's Carr. "That's impossible, but it's what you strive for, to give a competitive balance and to give the best teams the opportunity to advance. I think everyone in college athletics is in favor of anything that can help that happen."