NEW YORK -- To get the best seats in the house for the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis this year, you don't have to scalp some of the prime tickets.
You can just cut a check directly to the NCAA.
For the first time ever, the NCAA, which runs the college basketball postseason, is offering hospitality packages -- which include tickets -- to individuals and nonsponsors of the organization. In the process, it's getting in on the high-priced action usually reserved for ticket brokers and scalpers.
For a $55,000 buy-in, a person or organization will receive 10 lower-level seats in the RCA Dome, 10 seats in a hospitality room dubbed The Tournament Club and five hotel rooms for four nights in downtown Indianapolis and other amenities.
Considering that some opportunists sold Final Four tickets for as much as $7,000 apiece last year in St. Louis, the $55,000 price tag for that package might be deemed reasonable. The NCAA and its marketing partner, rEvolution, are also offering two other packages that include 10 tickets and hospitality. A lower bowl option costs $45,000, and a package that includes upper bowl seating costs $35,000.
"There's a secondary market that was not advantaging the schools or the NCAA," said NCAA president Myles Brand, who spoke at SportsBusiness Journal's Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in Manhattan on Wednesday. "We have the responsibility to recapture those revenues and distribute them to the schools."
One of the rules is that a company that competes with the NCAA partners -- which include Coca-Cola, Pontiac and Cingular Wireless -- is not eligible to purchase the tickets and entertain potential clients in the hospitality suite or at the game.
The program, which puts money into the coffers of the NCAA and then dribbles down to the colleges and universities under its umbrella, comes with the usual amount of criticism.
"It's social enterprise for athletes and free enterprise for everyone else," said Dr. Allen Sack, a former Notre Dame football player who is the director of the Management of Sports Industries program at the University of New Haven.
Sack is currently writing a book about what he calls the death of collegiate amateurism.
"There isn't anything morally wrong with capitalism," Sack said, "unless you do it under the fiction that these athletes are merely engaging in extracurricular activity during their free time, which the NCAA would like to have you believe."
Brand said he believes the NCAA should have done this a long time ago.
"We have never been particularly good at the business side. But we're starting to get better, and I think it's ironic that just when we start to get good, and generate revenue for the student-athletes, people say, 'What are you doing commercializing it?' Of course we are commercializing it. How else are we going to raise revenues?"
John Rowady, president of rEvolution, said the NCAA's greatest concern with the program was to avoid compromising the already existing corporate partners, including CBS.
CBS is entering its fourth year of an 11-year, $6 billion television contract with the NCAA to broadcast the 63 tournament games each winter. The NCAA says that about 95 percent of the revenue the organization receives from television and marketing rights fees is returned to its membership through direct payments and event services.
Rowady said there are 1,000 tickets available in the new program, and they will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.
More and more teams and organizations are learning, like the NCAA apparently has, how to take a piece of the action from the secondary market. This year, the Tournament of Roses has charged a lump-sum fee for a travel company associated with a ticket broker to sell tickets at premium rates for the national championship football game between Southern Cal and Texas. So many layers are built in because their deal with the college conferences doesn't allow the Tournament of Roses to sell tickets directly for more than $175 apiece.
"The fact of the matter is, there is a net loss in running intercollegiate athletics of $1 billion a year," Brand said. "If you're running a business, that's a pretty bad business. You'd be out of business as quickly as General Motors and Ford might soon be."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org