In a March without Madness, the WCC squirms

As I’m writing this, between sessions of thatching the lawn, the first basketballs of the NCAA men’s tournament were to be bouncing in Spokane. Thursday and Friday, the best two days of the sporting year, were upon us.


If you love college hoops, you can’t help but be a little wistful. But it’s safe to say, nobody is feeling more of a tug this weekend than the members of the West Coast Conference. (I’m referencing only the sporting side of the world, not the real-life victims in a perilous time, and hats off to the heroes of any stripe fighting the good fight.)

This was going to be a coming-out for the WCC, a statement that the league was blossoming, that there was more to the conference than Gonzaga. Between the Zags, the supercharged BYU attack and the wizardry of Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford, this could even have been the league’s brightest March/April since Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led San Francisco to back-to-back championships in 1955-56.

You can make the case that no conference suffers more in the gap from its 2020 tournament ceiling to its usual station than the West Coast Conference. Sure, the Big Ten was going to get 10 or 11 teams in the tournament, but it often gets seven or eight. This was going to be just the third time the WCC landed three teams in the bracket, and collectively, this trio was much more imposing than either of the threesomes of 2008 and 2012.

In these troubled times, pain is relative, but where it’s really going to bruise the WCC is in the pocketbook.

It’s still murky, the financial hit that colleges are going to take as a result of the cancellation of the 2020 tournament. The big dance, supported by a massive TV contract with CBS and Turner Broadcasting, is by far the largest moneymaker for the NCAA, which distributes most of the booty to the conferences. The tournament is insured against events such as we’re now enduring, but USA Today reports it to be for less than full value. How much less, we don't yet know.

Here’s what we do know: Each conference’s members would have earned about $290,000 per game in the tournament, and those units are banked over a rolling six-year window for each league. Let’s say Gonzaga had been the only WCC entry this year and the Zags bowed out in the second round. The WCC would gain two units – one for the automatic berth, and a second for the GU victory, each totaling about $1,740,000 over the six years ($290,000 times six), or $3,480,000 overall, to be thrown into the six-year annual-payout window from 2021-2026.

We can only speculate what might have been this year, but let’s speculate. Let’s give No. 1-seeded Gonzaga three victories and say that between them, BYU and Saint Mary’s earned two wins. (ESPN did a simulation based on Joe Lunardi’s bracket and its Basketball Power Index, and – cue the catcalls from Zag fans – came up with Wisconsin besting BYU in the final.)

Five wins total seems reasonably conservative. That’s six units (including the automatic berth by Gonzaga). At $290,000 each, that’s $1,740,000 for one year’s take. Multiply that over six years, and you have $10.44 million – the six-year yield from ’21-26 merely from this year’s tournament (and seven mil more than our example of a single-entry Gonzaga going to the round of 32).

That would have been a handsome return to couple with what most of us expected to be the good repute and exposure the league would have gained.

And think about this: In 2017, when Gonzaga went to the national-title game, the league earned seven units, including the auto berth. At about $270K per unit then, that poured some $11.34 million over six years into league coffers, the most in history for the WCC. So the ostensible haul in 2020 would have been a nice complement to that ’17 bounty over three years of the six-year window.

Why does it matter, you ask? Well, Zags coach Mark Few made a point a few years ago that WCC members needed to be investing some of that NCAA-earned cash into facilities upgrades to improve play in the league and thereby enhance the possibility of more teams making the tournament. Obviously, the more bread to each league member, the better fed they are, and the more likely to upgrade their programs.

Earlier this week, USA Today outlined the fiscal picture without a tournament, and its piece included this ominous quote from Barbara Osborne, a sports administration professor at the University of North Carolina: “All schools will be having huge belt-tightening because of this. This is going to affect higher education as a whole and school budgets overall. That’s going to impact the institutional subsidy for athletic programs. Athletic budgets will be smaller because conference payouts will be smaller. A lot of mid-majors desperately rely on these dollars. It’s not a pretty picture.”

If you take the optimistic view, you might argue that the league is “trending,” that, notwithstanding 2020, the signs are positive at programs like Pacific and USF. True enough. But the personnel losses are significant next season for BYU and Saint Mary’s. While the Zags will be preseason No. 1 in several precincts, Saint Mary’s will have to replace Jordan Ford, and BYU loses Yoeli Childs, T.J. Haws, Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas.

As the arenas are silenced in this strange March, those aren’t the only losses.