March Money Madness

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DATA FROM HEROSPORTS AND NCAA. GRAPHIC BY KALAN K. BIRNIE/FOGHORN

Every year, 68 teams are thrown into the billion dollar corporate blender that is better known as March Madness. In the 2016–17 season, the NCAA brought in $821.4 million in television and marketing deals for the men’s basketball tournament, as well as an additional $129.4 million in ticket sales.

Now, how much of that goes back to the teams, without whom none of this would be possible?

Logic would dictate that the players should receive a cut, as they are the central product around which those millions of dollars revolve.

About that…

NCAA eligibility bylaws mandate that all athletes hold amateur status while participating in the association’s sanctioned sports. This means that these athletes cannot have ever — since birth — been compensated, through money, gifts or services, for their athletic abilities or their likeness. In this context, likeness refers to an athlete’s appearance, so they can’t have ever been paid to be in a commercial or otherwise compensated to appear for or endorse a product or service.

Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and the great American gymnasts of the last few years are all ineligible to compete in NCAA competition because they have signed sponsorship deals and earned financial compensation alongside their Olympic medals, for example.

Zion Williamson, the anticipated top pick in this year’s NBA draft, has not made a penny from his basketballing talents. CBS has dedicated a camera to be trained on him for every second he plays in the tournament. Every person involved in the process of capitalizing on Williamson’s likeness for advertising revenues and viewers is being compensated for their work in executing the Zion Cam — well, except for Zion.

So, where does the money go?

It’s complicated.

The NCAA distributes funds to the conferences and schools in a handful of ways, but the biggest and most important method is through the NCAA Basketball Performance Fund. Funding is allocated to each conference based on a formula which factors the tournament performance of each conference’s teams over the previous six seasons. The conferences, in turn, distribute it to schools on their own accord.

Confused? We’re just getting started.

Each time a team appears in an NCAA tournament game, the team’s conference is awarded a “unit,” whether they win or lose. That unit then factors into the amount the NCAA disburses to that conference over the next six years.

Simply put, a conference’s payment is determined by the number of units it has earned in the previous six seasons.


This year, a unit is worth $280,300. In the last six seasons, 2013–18, the West Coast Conference (WCC) has racked up 26 units (Gonzaga alone is responsible for 20 of those 26 units). That adds up to $6,787,800 being awarded to this conference next month when the NCAA disburses the annual payments.

Because Gonzaga has earned most of that payment (and because the WCC has recently adopted a policy which increases “financial recognition” for teams’ success in the NCAA tournament), a sizable chunk of it will be given to the Zags. Both St. Mary’s and BYU will get a decent portion as well (St. Mary’s has earned 4 units and BYU has earned 2). After that, the remainder will be dispersed across the other seven teams in the conference, including USF.

So, if you have no rooting interest in this year’s tournament, keep in mind that for every game Gonzaga plays, the Dons will end up getting tens of thousands of dollars to put towards athletics scholarships, team travel and other departmental operations costs.

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