On any other day, Holy Cross men’s basketball coach Milan Brown would have rooted against the team from Lehigh University, one of his squad’s Patriot League rivals. But last March, as 15th-seeded Lehigh completed a stunning upset of No. 2 seed Duke University in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Brown found himself cheering.
“Because of the pride you have in your league, you want them to do well,” said Brown, who is 2-4 in his career against Lehigh.
Brown had another reason to pull for the underdog: The unexpected win by Lehigh netted something in the neighborhood of $200,000 for the Holy Cross athletic department.
The annual men’s college basketball tourney — “March Madness,” as many fans call it — is a high-stakes affair not only on the court but also on the balance sheet. Every game played this postseason, except for the championship contest, probably will pay each participating team’s conference almost $2 million over the next six years, money the league will spread to every member school.
One game matters little to a powerhouse league like the Southeastern Conference — home of athletic titans like the University of Florida and Louisiana State University — whose 2011 revenues totaled $261 million. But for a small conference like the Patriot League, which took in $2.6 million in the same year, a surprise victory represents a windfall for its member schools.
Next month, the Patriot League will receive its first check from Lehigh’s win over Duke: an extra $245,500, roughly a 10th of its annual revenue.
“It can make an impact,” said Richard Wanninger, the league’s senior associate executive director for external relations. “Teams can use the money for travel — whatever they need.”
Local colleges are among the schools where tourney success can help the most. Like Holy Cross, Boston University (America East Conference), Harvard University (Ivy League), and Northeastern University (Colonial Athletic Association) are members of small conferences that often qualify just one or two teams for short-lived tournament appearances.
Come March, these schools’ heated conference rivals become their financial allies.
“It’s a win for everybody when one of the teams from your conference makes a run,” said Harvard’s athletic director, Bob Scalise. Harvard is a No. 14 seed this year and plays the third-seeded University of New Mexico on Thursday.
March Madness is the NCAA’s primary revenue generator, thanks to a television deal with CBS and Turner Sports that pays an average of $771.4 million per year (big-money TV deals for college football involve individual conferences and the Bowl Championship Series, not the NCAA). The NCAA, a nonprofit organization, netted $814.5 million in revenues in 2011, according to its most recent financial report to the Internal Revenue Service.
Roughly a quarter of the money flows to athletic conferences through the NCAA’s Basketball Distribution Fund. The NCAA doles out portions based on the number of games each conference’s member schools played in the men’s basketball tournament over the previous six years.
At the basketball fund’s current rate of growth, a single win in this year’s tournament will be worth $1.8 million over time. It will still be paying dividends in 2019.
Some conferences divide the payouts equally among their members. Others, like the Patriot League, give larger shares to the schools that generate the money with their good play.
Northeastern is enjoying the spoils of a 2011 Final Four run by former conference rival Virginia Commonwealth University (now a member of the Atlantic 10), which participated in six tournament games that season, including a play-in contest for a No. 11 seed. VCU’s performance helped the Colonial Athletic Association rack up nine tournament games in 2011, after the conference averaged 2.6 games in the previous six years.
Harvard bowed out of last year’s tournament in the first round as the Ivy League’s lone entry, marking the fifth time in six seasons that the conference registered a single game. But in the 2010 tournament, Cornell University played three games, to make it to the Sweet 16.
The extra two games for Cornell meant an extra $3.1 million for the Ivy League, with Harvard getting a slice.
For a small-conference school, it is actually a financial opportunity — not a slap in the face — to be assigned to one of the “First Four” play-in games, which were created when the tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011. Though a school must compete just to make it onto the familiar, 64-team bracket, the odds of winning — and earning a second game — are much higher against another low seed in a play-in game than they would be against a high seed in a second-round contest.
Boston University benefited when last year’s America East champion, University of Vermont, drew a play-in assignment against Lamar University. Vermont won and became a No. 16 seed, earning a second game — and additional money — for the America East Conference for the first time since 2005.
“All the coaches know more games means more money for everyone,” said Brown, who recalled being the toast of the Northeast Conference after he coached Mount St. Mary’s University to victory in the only play-in game of 2008, when there were 65 teams in the field. “Everybody wants to buy you a cup of coffee.”
Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com.