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In Realignment: You May Take Their Teams, but You’ll Never Take Their NCAA Tourney Units

  • The men’s tournament awards ‘units,’ worth roughly $2 million each, to conferences based on how well their schools fare in the Big Dance.
  • Those units do not follow schools to their new conferences—a benefit this year to the Pac-12 and Big 12.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

From Texas to Oregon, several teams in this year’s NCAA men’s tournament will be representing their current conferences for the last time as a seismic wave of realignment approaches this summer.

Thanks to the concept of NCAA tournament “units,” however, these schools will leave a sizable parting gift for their old conferences. 

The NCAA awards financial distributions to men’s teams based on qualification and advancement in the tournament. Those units, generally valued around $2 million each, are paid out to the team’s conference over a six-year period. Even if a school leaves the conference, the units remain with the old conference.

Here’s how the distribution works: Every conference that participates in the tournament (sending their automatic qualifier or conference champion) receives a portion of the NCAA’s Equal Conference Fund, which this year has a pot of roughly $55 million. Additionally, conferences receive a unit for each at-large bid they send, which comes from a $171 million Basketball Performance Fund. Another unit is awarded to the conference for each game one of its teams wins in advancing toward the national championship game. 

Take for example the Pac-12, which is sending four teams to the tournament. Starting in July, the conference will have only two full-time members: Oregon State and Washington State, who will control all of the conference’s assets thanks to a settlement in a lawsuit against the conference and its departing members last fall. The Big 12 will also benefit from the prowess of Texas, which is joining the SEC next fall.

Oregon, which is headed to the Big Ten next year, won the final conference title, earning the Pac-12’s automatic qualifier spot. Now, if Oregon advances beyond the first round, every unit it earns will stay with the Pac-12 (or, as it is colloquially known, the “Pac-2”). Future Big 12 members Arizona and Colorado, two at-large teams, have already earned one unit apiece for their soon-to-be-old conference, and they’ll continue to earn more if they survive and advance. Those payouts will come in on a rolling basis for the next six years—a timetable that could conceivably stretch beyond the conference’s existence. (The Pac-12 can also look forward to units from one of its holdover teams, Washington State, which also made the Big Dance.)

Currently, the unit system exists for only the men’s tournament, though, thanks to the upcoming eight-year, $920 million media-rights extension package with ESPN, the women’s tournament might finally start handing out units of its own. And for a conference like the Pac-12, that would have been a game-changer—seven Pac-12 women’s teams are headed to the NCAA tournament this year.

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