March Madness: The $1.5b behind the NCAA tournament

After four days of withdrawal, college basketball fans can take solace in the fact that the game returns tonight when the first Sweet 16 game of NCAA men's basketball tournament tips off at 7:15p et.

While you are at the bar watching the game or enjoying wings and beer from the comfort of your couch, the NCAA is counting the cash. Lots of it.

Kantar media has been tracking the amount of money advertisers fork over during the tournament. Last year, the event brought in $1.13 billion in ad dollars. Over the last ten years, it has brought in $7.5 billion.

“It’s one of the top ten most watched sporting events if not any event on TV every year, so it makes total sense that you have huge advertisers...spending this kind of money,” says Yahoo Finance’s Aaron Task.

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The biggest advertisers during the tournament should be pretty familiar to any sports fan who sits through a commercial now and then. In 2014, General Motors (GM) paid $83.2 million for March Madness ads, AT&T (T) spent $61.9 million, Coca-Cola (KO) dropped $41.7 million and Anheuser-Busch InBev (BUD) $41.6 million.

Compared to other major sports, March Madness is bested only by the NFL in postseason ad revenue. It brings in more money (significantly more) than the NBA playoffs and championship, MLB playoffs and the World Series, the Stanley Cup playoffs and even NCAA football bowl games.

March Madness is a big money maker, but one group is left out of the riches
March Madness is a big money maker, but one group is left out of the riches

To be fair there are a total of 63 games in the NCAA tournament, all with ad space to be sold. Still, last year the average price of a 30-second spot in the championship game alone cost almost $1.5 million, a little less than the cost of a spot during the NFL conference championship games.

“There’s no denying it’s a big deal,” says Yahoo Finance Columnist Rick Newman. “The big question we’re going to be dealing with in the future is ‘this is a real business, and these are so called amateur student athletes. It’s kind of a farce in that regard.”

That is because, as many know, the one group who doesn’t see any of that money, at least directly, are the players on the court.

“The NCAA puts such tight restrictions on these players and has this veneer that they are amateurs when a lot of these guys and some of the women playing in the tournament now today are really there to play basketball or some other sport - to generate revenue for the school and for the NCAA,” says Task, adding, “It’s ridiculous, it’s hypocrisy to say this is amateur sport when you’re making a billion and a half dollars on just this one tournament.”

Newman agrees, saying the “complete mess” that college athletics has become needs a major overhaul.

Related: March Madness: These tourney-bound schools offer the best bang for your buck

It’s been a hotly debated topic for the last several years, especially after Shabazz Napier of last year's basketball champion, UConn, told reporters during that tournament that he often goes to bed hungry.

Is the answer to send these student athletes a weekly paycheck? Tasks suggests a revenue sharing program based on the teams success may be both an appropriate solution and an incentive to actually be a good student.

“If you graduate,” he suggests. “then you’re going to get some cut of the money you helped make for the school in the NCAA.”

Legendary University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who passed away in February, tried to make things right, at least a little bit, by willing all his former players $200 with instructions to "enjoy a dinner out."

What do you think about this hot button issue? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @Yahoo Finance