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It's no secret that preserving March Madness has been a priority throughout the stages of NCAA governance reform.
It's also no secret why.
Television and marketing rights fees related to the iconic NCAA men's basketball tournament -- currently in the middle of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS Sports and Turner -- account for 90% of the NCAA's annual revenue.
Each time a commissioner from one of the Power Five conferences -- the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern -- hinted at the idea of splitting from the NCAA and forming a so-called Division IV, March Madness was brought up as the main counter. The argument being: The NCAA tournament wouldn't be nearly as exciting nor as profitable with teams only from Power Five conferences. Would it have the same appeal without the Butlers and Virginia Commonwealths? Without the parity in the sport that allows for upsets to happen? Of course not.
Those in leagues outside of the Power Five have been stressing this point, and they've taken steps to try to ensure competitive balance moving forward. When the NCAA steering committee released its revised governance structure proposal Friday, it also included membership feedback.
Many non-Power Five conferences drove home the same point related to scholarship limits.
The Big East wrote, "Due to competitive concerns, we believe that team scholarship limits should remain permanently in the shared governance category." The Ivy League wrote, "Autonomy should specifically not allow increasing scholarship numbers/limits (i.e., the ability to 'stockpile')."
Other leagues, such as the Mountain West and Missouri Valley, echoed this, arguing to keep issues of scholarship size within the jurisdiction of the entire NCAA membership as an issue of shared governance, not just the highest-resource conferences (as an issue of autonomy).
The fear, simply put, is that more scholarships at high-major schools would mean "kids who would otherwise be at midmajor, low-major programs, are now kind of pining away on the bench at a major program," said Dan Gavitt, NCAA executive vice president for men's basketball championships, earlier this year. "That would have the potential to upset the competitive balance."
Increasing scholarships among Power Five schools isn't being seriously considered and isn't a topic for autonomy, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told USA TODAY Sports.
"I don't think any of us thought that the number of scholarships should be in an autonomy area, with one exception," Delany said. "The exception would be if either by a court decree or because we went to some form of freshman ineligibility, there would have to be flexibility in the number of scholarships in any sport affected by that. Short of that, I tend to agree. I think the numbers are where they ought to be. That's not why we went down this road. That has a direct bearing on competitive balance."
Delany said he thinks the reason other leagues have brought up the topic of scholarship limits is that "it's a concern they've always had," and "they're just re-emphasizing how important that is to them."
"We never asked for autonomy over scholarships; there's no record that I know of, there's no assertion," Delany said. "We did ask for a provision that allows us to move things from shared governance into autonomy, and so we have a list of things that are in the autonomy jurisdiction. We also say based on these circumstances, we need a mechanism to move things from shared to autonomy. They may be saying they want protection that this would never be moved. The only thing I would say to that is, generally, I would agree with that."
Supporters of maintaining the existing scholarship limits point to women's basketball to make their point about squad size affecting parity.
Men's basketball teams in Division I can have 13 scholarship players; women's teams have 15. Because the top women's teams can "stockpile" more of the elite talent, there is less parity and fewer early-round NCAA tournament upsets. This year the average margin of victory in the first round of the women's tournament was 19.2 points.
Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said she thinks scholarship limits as well as the rule that bars players from entering the WNBA early hurt parity in the women's game. Perhaps this should serve as a warning sign.
"If all of the sudden scholarships in men's basketball change, and instead of 13 it's 20, you can't predict with complete certainty, but I think it stands to reason that the schools that are heavily funded would have a greater opportunity to recruit and keep those players," Ackerman said. "That may well make it more difficult for every school to feel like it's got a shot at a national championship in the sport. I think that would be bad for college basketball."
Coaches seem to agree. Many in basketball-centric conferences, such as the Big East and Atlantic 10, are keeping tabs on student-athlete welfare reform and hope their leagues will adopt many of the new measures so their players receive benefits, too. And by doing that, coaches can recruit and compete on a somewhat level playing field.
Even those who stand to benefit enormously from autonomy understand the importance of competitive balance.
"We should have our limits. Notre Dame should have the same as the University of Delaware: 13 scholarships," Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey said. "I'm fully in agreement for competitive balance there. We shouldn't be allowed, and as we get autonomy, these five power conferences, to be able to give 17 or 15. I would agree with scholarship limits there. Thirteen is plenty for men's programs. ...
"I know there has been a little bit of this fear that the NCAA tournament would come just from the five power conferences. I'll tell you why that will never happen: With the money that CBS is paying for this tournament, which we know pays a lot of bills -- there ain't no way they're not going to have a VCU, a Mercer, a Florida Gulf Coast story in there.
"I always feel (teams) will be well-represented across the board. You can't change that dynamic."