The NCAA men's basketball tournament is now underway, and everyone with a bracket in-hand will closely follow the results until a champion is crowned on April 4 in Houston. But earning the national title means a lot more than bragging rights and prestige. Big bucks are at stake - and not just in office pools and gambling parlors. (For related reading, also check out The March Madness Effect.)
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Whether you're a hoops fan or not , March Madness, as the 68-team tournament is known, is one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year. It's fun and exciting for fans, but it's also big business. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that nearly $2.5 billion is wagered each year, and television and internet audiences number about 140 million over the course of the tourney. It is also the bread and butter of many colleges, which are looking to beef up their financial hope chests.

Typically, the teams that reach the Final Four reap the highest rewards of broadcast revenues and merchandise sales. But success in the tournament also boosts the school's profile, thus, attracting top-notch players down the road, which leads to more ticket sales, venue expansions and sponsorships in future seasons. It also increases donations from alumni and fans who want to be part of a winning team.

So, that said, here is a list of this year's tournament top seeds and their off-the-court status for MVT (Most Valuable Team).

EAST REGION

Ohio State
The Buckeyes are most synonymous with the country's football powerhouses, but the No. 1 seed in the East Region has a legitimate shot at winning its bracket, which would mean increased media exposure and a bigger share of the royalties pie. The season-to-date revenue is about $11 million, including $3.5 million in ticket sales alone. But even that won't help men's hoops gain on the school's football program, which generated $51.8 million (not including residuals from merchandise, TV spots etc.) in revenue. The Buckeyes basketball team may have to be content with a spot in the top-10 ranking for financial worth (Last season, they were listed as No. 7).

University of North Carolina
It's no surprise that the second-seeded Tar Heels are in the top tier. They've won five national titles (the most recent in 2009), reached the Final Four 18 times, and boast several impressive win streaks in the annals of college basketball. The team's only blip: it failed to make the tournament in 2010, but that didn't stop the Tar Heels from earning the No. 1 spot in financial worth: $29 million, up 12% from the previous year, according to Forbes. So far, for the 2010-11 season, North Carolina is ranked sixth in royalties of licensed merchandise sales alone by the Collegiate Licensing Company. One interesting note: of the top college contenders for financial worth, North Carolina basketball is the only team that out-paces the gridders.

WEST REGION

Duke
The defending NCAA champion grabbed the top seed in its bracket, but still doesn't compare in revenue to its North Carolina neighbor. The Blue Devils reportedly have huge operating expenses, greater than any other college basketball team. In 2010, the team brought in about $5.6 million, which pales in comparison to some other contenders. But a repeat win in this year's tournament could change that. Also, the North Carolina tourism board lists the NCAA Tournament as one of the top events to include if you're visiting the state in March. Oh, and the Blue Devils also have Nolan Smith, the only unanimous selection to the all-Atlantic Coast Conference squad, which certainly lifts its overall chances for a fifth title.

San Diego State
This team earned the second seed in the bracket, but isn't listed anywhere as a team to be reckoned when it comes to top financial value. It reported just a little over $2.6 million in revenue in its financial reports database. But the Aztecs have two of the top frontcourt players in the nation and a deep bench, so a strong showing in the tournament could attract more top-tier players in the future, which is the ultimate goal.

SOUTHEAST REGION

Pittsburgh
The Panthers were ranked in the top 20 on the financial worth list in 2010, with a $13.2 million value and $6.5 million in profits. But the Panthers basketball program set school records in attendance (212,682), and have had 132 consecutive sell-outs (132). However, who knows what their loss over the weekend will do for their value? Pittsburgh has 23 appearances in the NCAA Tournament and made it to the Final Four just once.

Florida
Although widely known for its football success, the Gators basketball team is nothing to sneeze at. They've earned four Final Four berths in 15 tournament appearances, winning it all in 2006 and 2007. This weekend, Florida topped UCLA in the third round before advancing to the regional semifinals, no easy task. The UCLA Bruins, one of the most storied men's basketball programs in history with 11 NCAA championships, also remains among the top earners.

SOUTHWEST REGION

Kansas
They may be the No. 1 seed on the court thanks in part to the highly-touted Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus), but the Jayhawks, who were fourth in value in 2010 ($24 million, $15.2 million in profit), got some stiff competition in the bracket when it comes to dollars and cents. According to Forbes, No. 4 seeded Louisville sat a notch above Kansas ($26 million) and ninth-seeded Illinois were not far behind ($20.8 million), marking a 9% jump in worth for the Illini from 2009.

Notre Dame
The No. 2 may have fared well on the hardcourt this season and in seasons past (they've made 30 NCAA Tournament appearances in all), but the Fighting Irish, who earned just above $4 million, the least of all the Big East teams, will forever be linked with college football. The team's exit this weekend probably won't do much to boost its basketball allure.

The Bottom Line
No matter who hoists the big trophy at the final buzzer, college basketball and the NCAA Tournament remains a top draw for fan and sponsors, media revenue, merchandise sales and university bragging rights. Hey, they don't call it March Madness for nothing! (For additional reading, also take a look at The Costs Of College Athletics.)

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