It’s no secret that the NCAA college basketball tournament is big business, despite the fact the athletes are amateurs and students. But just how big, and how has the pie been divided?
The AP became the first news organization to answer those questions thanks to an ambitious data project that cut through the NCAA’s mind-bending accounting practices, documenting where more than $3 billion in March Madness payouts over two decades actually went.
Figuring out how much cash each college actually got was both a reporting challenge and a math brainteaser that proved no match for the New York-based team of college sports reporter Ralph Russo and data journalist Larry Fenn.
Complicating their task was the fact that the NCAA referred to payments with a complex “unit” measurement, the value of which had to be extrapolated from results in six separate tournaments. Meanwhile, 32 different athletic conferences had their own rules for distributing those units back to schools.
Russo peppered the NCAA with questions about how the system worked, ultimately getting detailed numbers back to 1997. Fenn parsed tournament results to quantify wins and bids that qualified for payment under the system. Ultimately, their reporting and data were so good that they were able to reconstruct payments for early years that even the NCAA couldn’t document.
AP was able to reconstruct payments for early years that even the NCAA doesn’t have.
The work led to several stories detailing the money side of the NCAA Tournament, including the diminishing shares for smaller conferences, an explainer on the system itself, the value of the final invitations to the field (by Aaron Beard) and the unique situation for West Coast Conference-based Gonzaga, which used the system as leverage to get more money from its league (Eddie Pells). Fenn worked with New Orleans-based interactive newsroom technology editor Troy Thibodeaux and Washington data editor Meghan Hoyer to create a data distribution for members doing their own stories focused on individual schools. And top stories hub graphics artist Phil Holm worked with Fenn to build a robust interactive.
The AP-exclusive stories got more than 1,100 matches on Newswhip, and grateful members added several localized pieces. The social video created for the project got more than 80,000 views on Twitter Amplify. The project showcased the power of AP when we think ambitiously and outside the box, even around annual events that are already in the glare of the media spotlight. For their outstanding work, Russo and Fenn win AP’s Best of the Week.