NEW YORK -- Despite being five days before Selection Sunday, March Madness is underway in the grand ballroom at the J.W. Marriott just off Central Park. For the fourth consecutive year, executives, broadcasters and producers from CBS and Turner Sports have gathered for the media to prime their NCAA basketball coverage, touting the 2014 tournament as the first realization of a true dual partnership between the two networks. Teams, coaches and players are discussed for a time, but none of them are present. This gathering isn't about basketball; it's about how two broadcasting corporations extract the most value from the $770 million they spend on tournament rights each year.
It might be hard to remember, but March Madness used to not be a thing. In 1982, CBS took over the rights to the NCAA tournament from NBC and with it premiered the Selection Show, pioneering the manufactured concept of suspenseful bracketology. At the time, coverage of the early rounds was spotty at best, but by 1990 CBS was televising a quadruple-header the first Saturday and a tripleheader the following day, usurping America's entire weekend and spawning a modern obsession worth billions of dollars.
After a full catered breakfast in the golden-trimmed ballroom, the festivities began with the CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus introducing the expanded partnership between the two networks and highlighting the major feature of the 2014 tournament: A simultaneous broadcast of the semifinals across three networks, two of which will be local feeds. This way, viewers can experience unabashed homerism from either side. McManus described the move as having "no downside" since anyone not interested in blatant referee scapegoating can tune into CBS for the regular feed featuring Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr, our esteemed voices of neutrality.
After this brief introduction, studio host Ernie Johnson came onstage with Clark Kellogg, Anthony and Kerr to do a simulated studio session in which Johnson lobbed dead duck questions and the analysts gave their best Prince Fielder swings. Kellogg would have fit right in with the NFL on CBS crew's exaggerated laughing fits, while all three were in mid-tournament form with respect to saying lots of words without actually providing any meaningful analysis. Of course, there was nothing to actually analyze.
Once the panel broke and the event entered a freestyle format, dozens of key personalities were present to talk about whatever the media wanted to know, but one thing nobody knew was who would actually be playing in this tournament. The extent to which anyone could ask interesting questions was limited by the nebulousness of the event we all gathered to talk about. No matchups have been announced, no seeding formulated. The 2014 tournament, as it is, doesn't exist, which only highlighted the interchangeable nature of years, teams and players.
The panelists named teams they favored for one reason or another, although only one athlete was mentioned by name: injured Kansas center Joel Embiid (for the sole reason that he was injured and it would affect Kansas's title chances). Kellogg referred to the athletes as the "driving force" of the tournament, a statement that can only be considered true in the abstract; the presence of athletes matter, but each individual athlete is an interchangeable cog in the NCAA's machine. He stressed the need to "serve those kids in how we cover it [the tournament], how we tell their stories." Telling their stories is all Kellogg can do; like everyone else, he doesn't have much, if any, sway in the NCAA's policies.
The ghosts hanging over this lavish ballroom were the athletes who make it all possible (and profitable). Nobody in the room represented the NCAA or its policy of locking itself in the bridge of the sinking amateur athlete ship. No one present had the jurisdiction to justify why it wouldn't be permissible for a current scholarship athlete to accept money to attend this event, which promotes the tournament the athletes themselves will make worth watching. Not a single person could explain the incongruity in the right to broadcast non-waged laborers costing $10.8 billion. Everyone had plausible deniability as to why they cannot enact change, and yet everyone present served as indirect yet potent beneficiaries of the current system.
"I worry about these kids getting an education," Charles Barkley, a studio analyst for the Turner broadcasts, said to a gaggle of reporters. "These colleges, they're only concerned about making money. I'm not a hater. I don't care how much money Turner and CBS makes. But you've got to educate these kids and the less time they're missing school ... that's what I concern myself with." Barkley's statement encapsulates the cognitive dissonance at hand. While the profitability of a $10.8 billion dollar contract was openly celebrated, the knowledge of where those billions do not go hung over the room as prominently as the golden chandelier.
Everyone in this room is getting paid as a result of the tournament's popularity. The executives for CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting, McManus and David Levy, are getting paid. Barkley, Kellogg, Anthony and all the other men you will see on television are getting paid. All the media present -- including me -- are getting paid to report on and write about the tournament. The photographers present are getting paid, and the hotel staff is getting paid. On Tuesday, the tournament will tip off, where you will be able to see the only people who don't get paid.
However unfortunate and unjust, since none of us have any say-so with the NCAA, this is the system we must operate within. The tide has turned and is slowly forcing the ship to begin its laborious journey to the bottom. Until it disappears from the surface, there's a tournament to hold. With that comforting thought, I glanced back to the catering table to see if any bacon was left.