The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is reality entertainment at its best. The NCAA Selection Committee seeds the tournament to increase the chance that stronger teams advance further. A tournament structure that increases the likelihood that the best teams play in the Final Four increases television ratings and causes networks to bid more for the rights to March Madness.
The NCAA began using the pod system in 2002 to assign teams to first round sites. The pod system means that teams from different regions can play early round games in the same city in order to reduce travel distances and costs. In a study with Todd McFall, of Wake Forest University, we found that the pod system favors the top 16 teams in the country. The new rules have reduced travel distances for teams seeded two through four in each region. Top seeded teams had shorter travel distances to first round sites even before the pod system and teams seeded five through sixteen have not seen a decline in travel distances since 2002.
A good example of the impact of the pod system is Duke’s game tonight against Lehigh. Both North Carolina, the number one seed in the Midwest, and Duke, the number two seed in the South, will play tonight in Greensboro. Before the pod system, Duke would have likely travelled to either Nashville or Louisville to play South regional games. Greensboro is just 54 miles from Durham, giving the Blue Devils a clear advantage over a team from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Playing games closer to campus improves a team’s performance. Our study of over 1700 tournament games found that playing in a team’s home state was worth 1.3 points, and each 100 miles further one’s opponent must travel is worth and additional .14 points. Combining these two effects, we expect Duke’s margin of victory over Lehigh to be 1.92 points more than if they played at a truly neutral site. This advantage is comparable to the difference between receiving a two-seed rather than a three-seed in the tournament.
The NCAA gives more favorable seeds to basketball teams with better strength of schedules and higher RPIs. The NCAA has extended this to giving more favorable first round site assignments to the top 16 teams in the country. All else equal, this means we are more likely to see fewer upsets of teams ranked in the top four in each region, early in the tournament. Although this lowers the chance of Cinderella teams advancing to the Elite Eight and Final Four, it will probably produce more competitive games between higher ranked teams late in the tournament.