Luke DeCock: NCAA celebrates basketball amid epochal change, but football pulls strings in the shadows

Luke DeCock, The News & Observer on

Published in Basketball

HOUSTON — The Final Four has taken over Houston, where even the light rail trains are wrapped in the NASA-inspired logo, alongside the logo of one of the NCAA’s “corporate champions,” of course. It’s the same thing in Dallas, where all of the signage at both airports leaves no traveler unaware that the women are in town.

The Men’s Final Four — the additional branding introduced last year after 2021’s gender-equity debacle in the women’s San Antonio bubble — is the biggest event on the NCAA calendar, the conclusion of a tournament that is its biggest revenue engine, a celebration and convention as much as a championship.

The Women’s Final Four is catching up fast in terms of interest, if not yet financial reward. That’s now an untapped oil field of money ready to blow when the NCAA’s television deal covering most sports other than men’s basketball expires in 2024. That deal, signed in 2011, pays the NCAA only $34 million a year, pocket change in a billion-dollar industry. Women’s basketball has never been bigger, and the next television deal will reflect that.

And yet even that will be a rounding error compared to the College Football Playoff’s next deal, post-expansion, and all four basketball teams that survived the two weeks of randomness and chaos that is the madness of March to make it to Houston have had, and will have, their long-term destinies shaped not by basketball but by football.

Football, the all-conquering, all-powerful economic engine of college sports, a plague of locusts that consumes everything in its path.

Connecticut was in, and then out of, and then back in the old and new Big East as it followed the path set by its football team, whose complete failure to gain any traction paved the way for the basketball team to get back where it belonged.


San Diego State has spent the past two weekends publicly angling for admission to the Pac-12 as a Southern Californian program to replace UCLA and USC. Those schools defected to the Big Ten in the latest spasm of nonsensical conference realignment, an untamed chain reaction that started with the ACC’s original plundering of the original Big East to shore up its football situation.

That unlicensed poaching included the addition of Miami, which despite Jim Larranaga’s best efforts and the multi-million dollar NIL commitments of the rare Hurricanes booster who cares about men’s and women’s basketball, would have many of its fans prefer to trade this trip and the 2013 ACC title for the barest whiff of a long-sought College Football Playoff bid for the — when in Houston, etc. — all-hat, no-cattle football program.

And Florida Atlantic had its long-term destiny set when Howard Schnellenberger started a football program from scratch in 1998 and will, next year, ascend to the American. The basketball program has been just fine in Conference USA — which has provided the NIT and CBI champions in 2023 — but the AAC is another rung up the football ladder.

Especially in this Final Four, absent many of the usual suspects, from blue-bloods (although Connecticut comes close) to McDonald’s all-Americans, it doesn’t help generate interest when not one but two of the basketball teams are from football-obsessed South Florida.


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