The Pac-12 squeaked five teams into this year’s NCAA tournament, its highest total since qualifying a record seven in 2016. The run that the 2021 quintet went on has shocked just about everyone who followed college basketball this season. (Did anyone expect UCLA to roll from the First Four to the Final Four?) The surprise success will also prove lucrative—the conference will eventually make a whopping $38.7 million from this year’s March Madness.
The NCAA has a complex way of rewarding teams for their tournament performances. At its most basic: Teams earn units for each game they play, and those units deliver payments to the team’s conference for the next six years. A game played in the 2021 tournament, according to Sportico’s calculations, will be worth a total of $2.04 million over those six years.
There is no payment for the championship game, meaning all 132 units from this 2021 tournament have now been allocated, and no conference will make more than the Pac-12’s $38.7 million. The Big Ten is next at $34.6 million, even though only one of the conference’s nine participating teams (hello, Michigan) made it past the first two rounds, followed by the Big 12 (thanks, Baylor) and the SEC (Wooo Pig Sooie).
The ACC, Big East, American, West Coast and Missouri Valley conferences all also notched enough wins for eight-figure paydays.
The NCAA encourages conferences to split the money evenly among its schools, and most do. That includes the Pac-12, so last-place Cal will see the same total payout from this year’s tournament as Final Four-bound UCLA, even though the Bruins singlehandedly earned the conference five units, worth more than $10 million, with their surprise run.
The money is especially valuable for the Pac-12, which has struggled in the past few years to maintain relevance in the money sports of football and men’s basketball. Frustration between the conference’s lagging revenue relative to the Big Ten and SEC was a big factor in commissioner Larry Scott leaving his post a year ahead of schedule.
Payment for this year’s tournament will start next year and end in 2027. Though the exact amounts associated with each of those years isn’t yet set, Sportico calculated the next six years of unit value based off of the NCAA’s own budget projections. The NCAA didn’t respond to a request to review the numbers by the time of publication.
By our numbers, units will be worth $338,887 next year and grow to $359,092 a piece by 2026, before falling in 2027. The dip is because of the canceled 2020 tournament. No units were awarded last year, so for the next five years, the six-year payment cycle will only include five tournaments. By 2027, there will be a full six years’ worth of tournaments once again—all coming out of the same pool of money, meaning the value assigned to each will dip slightly.
Sportico will be publishing one short business highlight every weekday (and on some weekend days) during the three-week NCAA tournament.
March 20: Men’s vs. Women’s NCAA Tournament Money
March 21: Indexing the NCAA’s Corporate Sponsors
March 23: As Top Seeds Lose, Sportsbooks Win
March 24: #NotNCAAProperty Reaches Millions Online
March 26: Loyola’s Rambling Flutie Effect
March 30: Odd Start Times A Result of Cash Crunch