Princeton’s surprise run to the Sweet Sixteen is being cheered across the Ivy League, and for good reason. Thanks to the complex way the NCAA rewards March Madness success, each Tigers’ win is likely worth more for its conference peers than any other team in the tournament.
The NCAA’s distribution formula is convoluted, but in in simple terms, the governing body pays conferences a chunk of money, called “units,” for every game (minus the championship) that its men’s teams play. Princeton’s two wins guarantee the Tigers will play at least three games, so the Ivy League has already earned three units from the Cinderella run. The exact value won’t be known until 2029, but the NCAA’s revenue projections indicate that each unit earned this year will be worth about $2 million when the full amount is paid.
Most conferences distribute that money evenly amongst their teams at the request of the NCAA, and the eight-school Ivy League is the smallest conference in Division I. As a result, every unit Princeton earns is likely worth more for schools like Yale and Harvard than the units earned in other, bigger conferences. Ivy League schools will average roughly $250,000 per unit; schools in the 15-team Atlantic 10 Conference will average about $133,000.
While the ~$6 million that Princeton has already earned for the Ivy League may not look like much, especially considering that half the Ivy schools have endowments of more than $20 billion, it’s not an insignificant amount for their athletic departments. The Tigers reported a men’s basketball budget of $1.7 million last season. An even cut of $6 million would be close to half of that total.
An Ivy League spokesman didn’t return an email seeking comment on the league’s exact unit distribution.
Princeton’s Saturday win over Missouri drew public congratulations from a number of other Ivy League programs. Tigers’ coach Mitch Henderson, a guard on the 1996 Princeton team that upset UCLA, said after the game that the victory achieved a goal he’d had since his playing days of reaching the Sweet Sixteen.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing deep into the tournament,” Henderson said. “As a player, I got to the second round a couple times, never got beyond it. … It’s unbelievable.”
The Ivy League is no stranger to Cinderella runs. In 2010, Cornell made the Sweet Sixteen with wins over Temple and Wisconsin. Harvard won opening round games in 2013 and 2014, and Yale did the same in 2016. Over the past decade, the league has played 14 NCAA tournament games, a stretch that includes the cancelled 2020 tournament and the 2021 tournament that the conference sat out because of COVID.
Princeton, however, hasn’t shared in that success recently. The school has a notable place in basketball history—a legacy that includes Bill Bradley, the Princeton Offense, and that historic 1996 UCLA upset—but the Tigers haven’t won an NCAA game in 25 years, and haven’t been to the final 16 since 1967.
The Princeton women’s team is still alive as well, the first time any Ivy League school has won games in both tournaments in the same year, but the NCAA has no compensation or payout system for success in the women’s event. That could change soon, however, as the governing body faces increased pressure to diversify its revenue streams, and its distributions.
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