Mar 27, 2019 - Sports

How NCAA conferences earn money from March Madness

Every year, the NCAA distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to Division I conferences based on which teams made the tournament and how far they advanced.

Data: AP; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: AP; Chart: Harry Stevens/Axios

How it works: Conferences are paid out based on total number of "units," which is what the NCAA calls its tally of wins, automatic qualifiers and at-large bids.

  • Each distribution year is assigned a value for a single "unit," which is then applied to units earned by conferences over the previous six tournaments. (For instance, the $216 million paid out last year amounted to $273,500 per unit for tournament results from 2012–2017.)
  • Payments are made each April to conferences, who then decide how to split the earnings. Most share the money equally among members, but in some leagues, the schools that earned the units get bonuses.
  • The schools take that money and mostly re-invest it in athletics (scholarships, coaching salaries, facilities, etc).

By the numbers: Loyola Chicago's Final Four last year will be worth at least $8.5 million to the Missouri Valley Conference over the next six years. Some other recent windfalls:

  • George Mason, 2006: Earned five units worth $6.4 million for the Colonial Athletic Association (moved to Atlantic 10 Conference in 2012).
  • Butler, 2010-11: Earned 10 units over two years worth $15.1 million for the Horizon League (moved to Big East in 2013).
  • Wichita State, 2013: Earned five units worth $7.9 million for the Missouri Valley Conference (moved to American Athletic Conference in 2018).

The big picture: From 1997-2018, the Big Ten has been paid the most ($340.4 million), followed by the ACC ($316.3 million) and the Big 12 ($307.3 million).

  • Meanwhile, the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) has earned just $25 million, "nearly the minimum it can earn given that all leagues make money from their teams that qualify automatically," per AP.

The bottom line: College basketball's power conferences send multiple teams to the tournament annually, so money comes in fairly consistently.

  • But for smaller leagues that typically only get one automatic bid, getting a second at-large bid — or, better yet, seeing one of their schools go on a deep tourney run — is like winning the lottery.

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