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March Madness and the big business of college sports

Fans watch as Jeff Withey #5 of the Kansas Jayhawks shoots a free throw during the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at Allen Fieldhouse on January 9, 2013 in Lawrence, Kansas.

This Saturday, college basketball fans will have their eyes on Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse as the teams face off in the Final Four. But March Madness is just a slice of the big business of college sports. And though the teams for the Final Four are set, the conferences those teams play in during the regular season are far from static.

"One of the ironies in college athletics right now is that the Big 12 has 10 and the Big 10 is soon going to have 14," says Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12 conference.


So why do college coaches get paid so much? Bowlsby explains.


Bowlsby says there's no question it's the lure of TV contracts that's creating a sort of musical chairs among conferences as schools try to squeeze as much revenue as possible from their brands. "There are some very bad decisions that are being made by certain institutions based only on the money and not on traditions of rivalries and what may be best for the institution in other ways." He points to departures from the Big 12 of Missouri and Texas A&M, moves that destroyed century-old rivalries. Meanwhile, adding Rutgers and Maryland to the Big 10 makes little sense from a competitive standpoint but it will bring two huge markets full of cable subscribers to the Big 10: New York and Washington, D.C.

"The popularity of football is really what's driving it," Bowlsby says. He points to the reorganization of the Atlantic Coast Conference: "The majority of the value, even for a league that has the most storied tradition in men's basketball -- is driven by the sport of football." Schools risk losing other sports as they dash to monetize their pigskin team.

And this, says Bowlsby, can set a dangerous precedent for the future. "What we've done is commoditize institutions of higher education and I don't think that's a path down which we really want to go."

Bowlsby says the future of conferences still isn't clear. "And you wonder at some point, are there going to be those four super conferences or one or two very large organizations that close everyone else out."

So who will he be watching this weekend now that the Kansas Jayhawks didn’t make it through? "You know I think there are some great storylines with this Final Four.” But Bowlsby diplomatically declined a chance to pick a winner.


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About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.
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