It’s no longer any surprise that the NCAA Tournament is big business. In fact, the tournament’s TV partners pay the NCAA more than a whopping $1 billion per year just in rights fees. A big chunk of that money gets distributed to the college conferences in the form of prize money, as the NCAA rewards the conferences that perform best in each year’s tournament. And this year none of those conferences is expected to do better than the ACC. In fact, it looks like the ACC may come close to breaking the record for distributions won at a single tournament.
The ACC placed nine team in this year’s big dance, two more than any other conference (the Big East and Big Ten each has seven teams). And some of those ACC squads are expected to go far, with three of them among the bracket’s top eight: UNC is the top seed in the South while both Duke and Louisville are No. 2 seeds. Anything can happen, as we’re reminded by wild upsets every year, but heading into this year’s tournament it looks like the ACC could be in line for nearly $40 million in NCAA distributions.
Here’s how that math works out:
Conferences get a ‘basketball unit’ for each tournament game one of its teams plays, including the play-in round but not the championship game. Those units have a six-year shelf life, so units won this year will be held by a conference through 2023. Why is that important? Because every spring the NCAA provides a financial payout to conferences for each unit in their possession. This year conferences will receive $264,859 per unit.
Unit values tend to increase a bit every year – next year units are projected to be worth $272,620, and in 2019 they’re projected to pay out $280,756. Assuming similar increases over the following four years, a unit won in this year’s tournament will be worth just over $1.7 million across its six-year life. So if North Carolina makes a run to the Final Four, thus collecting five units, it will have earned more than $8.5 million for the ACC.
So how much is each team expected to earn? Thanks to Nate Silver’s FiveThiryEight website, we have a round-by-round breakdown of each team’s odds, based on a relatively complicated methodology explained in detail here. And we can simply apply those round-by-round odds to the NCAA payout data to determine how much each team – and thus each conference – can be expected to earn from this year’s tournament.
The ACC not only comes out on top, but it does so by a massive margin. The ACC is projected to earn 22 units, three shy of the record it set last year. Those units are estimated to be worth about $38 million over the next six years (UNC, Duke and Louisville are responsible for about $18 million, or nearly half of that total). That’s 50% more than any other conference. The Big East and Big 12 are each expected to collect just under 15 units, or some $25 million in NCAA payouts. The Big Ten is projected to earn $23 million, and the SEC rounds out the top five with $19 million in expected earnings.