With one bracket size in all but the first season of its 81-year history, the NAIA men’s basketball championship format has been a monument to consistency in Kansas City.
But a major change is on the horizon.
The number of teams arriving for the final will be sliced by half in 2021. Instead of 32 teams under one roof, 16 will battle for the trophy.
No more wall-to-wall basketball with 31 games spread over six days in a hoops-festival atmosphere. The change is the result of a multi-year study that takes into account a consolidation of divisions and an opportunity to save money.
The new format has stirred emotions in the NAIA community. Some of those most heavily invested in the event aren’t happy about the bracket, and it’s not simply a reaction to change. They say the new format could damage the NAIA’s appeal.
“The 32-team format is unique and special,” said John McCarthy, who once served as the NAIA tournament director. “It’s what unites the NAIA.”
The new format will start as a 64-team event with 16 regional sites of four teams each. Those games will be played on a campus or a neutral setting, the sites awarded by bid. The winners will advance to the finals site, and the new format will apply to the men’s and women’s tournaments.
NAIA president and CEO Jim Carr said he believes schools collectively could save between $300,000 and $400,000, mostly in travel costs, with the new format, and that the change wasn’t made easily.
“I know there was disappointment and sadness about the change, and I share some of that sadness,” Carr said. “There’s a lot of history and tradition with the tournament.
“But the rationale is solid.”
Coaches don’t think their voices were considered strongly enough. They knew changes were likely in the organization that numbers 94 Division I and 135 Division II members. Since 1991-92, the NAIA has held separate 32-team tournaments. The combined divisions will create the new 64-team bracket.
“One division, we know that probably would happen,” said Oklahoma Wesleyan coach Donnie Bostwick, who has won a Division II title and was an assistant on a Division I championship staff. “But please don’t take away our 32-team tournament. It makes us different. It’s something we talk about in recruiting. I hate the idea of losing it.”
The NAIA tournament is steeped in history. Basketball inventor James Naismith, along with hoop Hall of Famer and Baker University athletic director Emil Liston and entrepreneur Frank Cramer, saw the need for a postseason college basketball tournament nearly 100 years ago.
The first event tipped off with eight teams in 1937, making it college basketball’s longest continuous championship. A year later, 32 were entered, and that’s been the bracket’s size ever since.
The event has seen some change. It spent eight years in Tulsa, Okla., and has been played at the building formerly known as Kemper Arena. But 32 teams at Municipal Auditorium has been the setting for 54 years, including last March, when Graceland, Iowa, won its first championship before 6,377 fans — the tournament’s largest crowd since 2002.
To McCarthy, reducing the finals field is tantamount to turning one’s back on NAIA history.
“What kills me is the history of the tournament comes down to a few thousand bucks,” McCarthy said. ”I don’t think there is a lot of deep understanding about the history, which is so much the tournament’s identity.”
The decision was the result of a two-year review. The new format was finalized by the National Administrative Council, a broad group of officials from NAIA schools throughout the country, and approved by university presidents.
The NAIA tournament will be played at Municipal through 2020, and the association doesn’t have plans to leave Kansas City after that, Carr said. It will soon negotiate future tournament dates.
Those who oppose this change hope it isn’t etched in stone. Jim Poteet of Olathe has attended every NAIA tournament since 1963 and coached Bethany Nazarene (Okla.) to the 1981 championship.
“My way of thinking is a 32-team tournament should be non-negotiable,” Poteet said. “You don’t mess with that.”