In this March 18, 2015, file photo, the NCAA logo...

In this March 18, 2015, file photo, the NCAA logo is displayed at center court at The Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. More than half of Americans say they are against college athletes unionizing, though younger respondents were more supportive than older, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Credit: AP/Keith Srakocic

Tracking the changes upending college sports can be as frenetic as flipping between all the games going down over the first week of March Madness. Ultimately, those changes could impact what America’s favorite basketball tournament looks like in the future — or whether it exists at all.

News about “pay for play” in college sports gushes from a veritable firehose these days. Whether it’s the Dartmouth basketball team looking to unionize, a judge undercutting the NCAA’s ability to regulate payments to athletes or yet another bout of conference realignment, the stakes are clear: Everything in college sports is open for discussion, interpretation and adjustment.

That includes the industry's most hallowed tradition, the NCAA basketball tournaments, which begin this week and will stretch from coast to coast. The bottom line behind it all is money.

“There’s no pretense anymore,” said Rick Pitino, the St. John’s coach who recently made news by proposing a salary cap and a two-year contract for players who negotiate name, image and likeness sponsorships. “Now we’re dealing with professional athletes in the guise of NIL. I’ve tried to think of solutions and ways around it. But any solutions, the courts will just obliterate it.”

Pitino sees the courts reshaping and redefining college sports in much more aggressive fashion than what he describes as a largely hapless NCAA, an organization he has tangled with repeatedly over the years.

The coach also recognizes the irony of basketball being inextricably linked to the future of football, where revenue from media, ticket sales and other areas dwarf those in basketball, even with its March Madness TV deal worth around $900 million a year. Virtually all the biggest decisions in college sports stem from the biggest conferences in football trying to squeeze more money out of TV rights, whether through an expanded playoff or realignment or maybe even an expanded basketball tournament.

The four remaining mega-conferences – the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Southeastern -- have even floated the idea of breaking the football operation off from the NCAA in a move that some believe could ultimately dictate the future of March Madness.

The PAC-12 logo is displayed on the traction mat used...

The PAC-12 logo is displayed on the traction mat used in front of the scorer's table of the Events Center before the final conference regular-season NCAA college basketball game Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Boulder, Colo. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

Future of March Madness

Jay Bilas, the former Duke player who works for ESPN and has long criticized the NCAA for exploiting athletes, said today's trends — more money and players grabbing a larger slice of it — could suggest a future in which players partake in revenue-sharing arrangements from the actual events they star in.

“That would, I think, make it a necessity that the NCAA do the same thing" with March Madness, Bilas said. "And with the NCAA Tournament now, if they choose not to do that and it continues to to be as it is, maybe it could get challenged.”

The most likely short-term shift appears to be expanding the tournament from its current 68 teams to somewhere between 76 and 80 – a concept that can only gain steam after an unpredictable set of conference tournament results dramatically shrunk the bubble and left a number of power-conference teams out of the draw.

The goal would be to appease the larger conferences that want more spots for their teams, which could presumably mean more revenue for them. Uncertain is whether that would significantly grow the TV contract. Mixed up somewhere in that calculation is the reality that the tournament wouldn't be what it is without the likes of George Mason, Saint Peter’s and FAU — underdog programs from conferences that don't have much heft in the overall decision-making process.

“What makes March Madness is that Cinderella can come to the ball,” Pitino said. “I don’t think they should ever be excluded from that.”

Pitino sounds confident that the NCAA knows enough not to mess up that part of the equation.

Far different landscape for college athletics

The changes might be best portrayed on a casual stroll through any Division I athletic facility’s parking lot. Not even a decade ago, the sight of a big-name athlete rolling through campus with a fancy car would send a jolt that reverberated for miles – from the school’s athletic department to the phones of the local beat reporters, all the way to the NCAA compliance office.

These days, nobody thinks twice about that. Everyone from Rickea Jackson (Tennessee) to Nijel Pack (Miami) to the entire Utah basketball and gymnastics teams have well-publicized endorsement deals with car companies.

The cars, the jewelry and even the deal signed with a memorabilia company by Iowa star Caitlin Clark — reportedly worth more than $1 million in the first year — all started to become possible in 2021. State laws allowing sponsorships for college athletes forced the NCAA to drop the ban on such things; athletes were buoyed by a separate Supreme Court ruling that made clear that any attempt by the NCAA to stop them would likely fail.

“I don’t really spend any time trying to imagine” what might happen next, North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I never thought in the three years that I was head coach that it would be the birth of NIL, the transfer portal, the extra COVID year, the involvement of agents more than parents on the backside of the pandemic.”

Also factoring into the equation is last month’s ruling by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board that allowed the Dartmouth men’s basketball team to unionize and seek payment from the school the way any other employee would.

That sort of ruling only applies to private schools, which are a distinct minority in major college sports. Still, Southern California’s football and basketball players are pursuing a similar path, and there's a sense more will follow. Sensing the inevitable shift, NCAA President Charlie Baker sent a letter to schools in December proposing a new tier of Division I sports in which schools would be required to offer at least half their athletes a payment of at least $30,000 a year through a trust fund.

“That's just violating federal antitrust laws a little less than you did before,” Bilas said. “It's still a unilaterally imposed cap.”

In case after case, judges are ruling against those sort of restrictions.

The Dartmouth ruling came shortly after a judge in Tennessee ruled the NCAA could not forbid schools from using NIL offers as recruiting inducements. Late last year, a judge in West Virginia put a stop to an NCAA proposal to restrict transfers, meaning players remain free to move between schools, often in pursuit of more playing time and better NIL deals.

Free agency is not just for the pros

Add it all up and there are few constraints to this opening burst of college free agency – a system unevenly regulated by a patchwork of state laws, with the NCAA all but standing to the side watching a new era develop, or envelop, the business it is tasked with overseeing.

“I’ve been saying we’ve been living in the dog days of college sports, because we’re seeing seven years’ worth of changes in one year,” said Amy Perko, who chairs the Knight Commission, a college sports advocacy group that seeks reforms based on academic and Title IX compliance.

Most coaches, at least in public, agree players are long overdue to receive some sort of payday as the main cogs in what has become a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry.

Pitino is in that camp. When he made news last month by calling this the most difficult year of his coaching career, most interpreted it as a shot across the bow at his team, which was underachieving at the time and fell short of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Pitino responded by saying his team wasn't interested in the NIT and was moving on to next season.

He said his real frustration lies elsewhere.

“The most disturbing thing to me is, every single meeting we’re having right now is, ‘This player’s leaving, I hear this player’s leaving,’” Pitino said. “It’s an awful feeling that the goal of developing players is gone. For me, it’s been the most disappointing year -- not what’s taken place on the court, but what’s taken place outside the court.”

He is giving voice to the reality that, even though the fight songs and school colors might not change, college sports can't even pretend to be amateur sports anymore. Time will tell if that bodes well or ill for the future of March Madness.

“The flashing red light is, what is college sports eventually going to become?” said Martin Edel, an attorney who teaches sports law at Columbia Law School.


AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed.


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