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Thanks to autobids, Gonzaga profited from losing its conference title game

Autobids are of the devil.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at St. Mary’s D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Any time the subject of college football playoff expansion is broached, a spirited debate around autobids is sure to follow. Usually, the focus is more on the merits of fairness vs. competitive playoff games: is it more important for everyone to get a seat at the table, or to do our level best to seed the very best teams in the country? Any format that offers autobids will necessarily include a number of at-large bids to ensure that the best team isn’t undone by a single regular season loss. Reasonable people can disagree on format for competitive purposes, but what about revenue?

Imagine a world where losing a conference title game means a windfall for your conference and school.

That’s exactly what happened this year in two basketball leagues, when the #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs were inexplicably blown out in the WCC title game by a St. Mary’s squad they had beaten by 48 in February, and Belmont fell to Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers.

Gonzaga’s case is quite curious: they led the nation this season at over 88 points per game and hadn’t scored fewer than 67 in any contest, but laid a 47-point egg in the conference title game. They were still given a #1 seed commensurate to their full season’s work, but St. Mary’s was headed to the NIT had they lost. Likewise, Murray State was only going to the tournament if they won the conference title, and you can bet that everyone involved with college basketball and CBS wanted Morant in the bracket.

For some context, in the 2017 NCAA tournament a second bid added an additional $3.4 million to the WCC coffers and, with revenue sharing, a decent portion of that money went straight to Gonzaga as it will after this season. The money from the basketball fund is distributed over a six year period, but it’s critical to the conferences to keep the pipeline full. Mission accomplished.

Understand, this piece isn’t intended to accuse any team of wrongdoing. As Richard Johnson pointed out last year, Gonzaga coach Mark Few has expressed frustration with the WCC’s equal revenue sharing policy:

“We need to talk long and hard about (NCAA tournament) money distribution that we’re making for the league,” Few said, “and if they’re not spending it on basketball, we don’t need to be sponsoring swimming at those schools or whatever they’ve got going. They’re not all in.”

Still, the revenue is substantial, particularly for the midmajor leagues. An additional qualifier means an extra $1.7M for a conference, plus more for every tournament win. According to a study from the Washington Post, the West Coast and Ohio Valley conferences, home to Gonzaga and Belmont, depend on the NCAA tournament for a respective 58% and 40% of their total conference revenue of about $8 million and $6 million. Compare that with the Power Five leagues, who despite multiple bids on an annual basis gain no more than 10% of annual revenue from the basketball fund, with three of the five at 6% or less.

Getting back to football, under the current contract a playoff participant earns $6 million for its conference kitty. Implement an autobid similar to the basketball version, and a #1 ranked team has a financial incentive to lose its conference title game, just as Gonzaga did. Avoiding the potential for and appearance of impropriety is almost as critical as avoiding impropriety itself.

A simple answer for basketball would be to change the autobid process to a one-bid guarantee. Had a mediocre season but got hot at the right time and won three tournament games? Enjoy your trophy and conference banner as you watch the best team in your league compete in the postseason. “Bid stealers” aren’t just stealing spots from other leagues along with a bunch of money, they are often stealing a bid from a much more deserving conference-mate in a league that can’t justify two qualifiers. Putting weaker teams in the field makes for a weaker tournament.

As for football? Hopefully we never get there, but serious consideration needs to be given to all of the potential consequences of autobids should the playoffs ever expand.