Is UCLA approaching the goal line on a move to the Big Tenor could its plans be thwarted by a total bolt of lightning?
Concerned about the Bears’ hasty exit from the Pac-12University of California system leadership on Wednesday proposed new rules that could limit campuses from making major decisions involving athletic contracts on their own.
Much more concerning for UCLA, two UC regents and the UC system’s general counsel suggested there might be a way to block the Bears’ move, which was widely considered a fait accompli since it was announced in late June.
“It’s important to understand that when the regents delegated authority to the president, they didn’t give it away or lose it,” UC system attorney Charlie Robinson said during a meeting of regents at UCLA’s Luskin Center. “Basically what they did was extend it so that authority was with the rulers and the president.”
After the end of a closed session lasting more than an hour, governor John Perez told The Times that the governors retained the power to block UCLA’s move.
“All options are on the table,” he said.
Did that mean options could be pursued that would prevent the Bears from joining cross-town rival USC as the newest members of the Big Ten starting in the summer of 2024?
“All options are on the table,” Perez reiterated, “up to and including that. … We’ll look at what all the different options look like and then the board will assert itself based on what its desired outcome is.”
It was widely assumed that a 1991 UC system policy that delegated authority to campus chancellors to implement their own contracts, including intercollegiate athletic agreements, would provide leeway for UCLA Chancellor Gene Block to unilaterally greenlight his school’s conference switch.
Not so, Robinson told the governors when asked about their choices.
“One mechanism would be for the [regent] board chair to say, “I’m ordering you, in this case, to step down,” Robinson said, “and the board will exercise authority in this area.”
Richard Leib, the chairman of the board, asserted his power after the meeting ended.
“We always have the ability to retain authority,” he said, “which is what we heard today.”
The question is whether Leib would try to exercise that authority given that many believe UCLA’s move to the Big Ten would represent a net plus for the UC system.
Asked if he preferred scrapping the deal, Leib told The Times it was “too early” to make that decision or gauge whether other rulers would support that move. Although several governors have expressed concerns about the impact on athletes’ health and academic performance due to longer travel times, Leib said they could be mitigated. The use of more charter flights, for example, would be less stressful than commercial flights, he said.
An interim report, discussed during the governors meeting, recommended possible limits on the ability of the UC president to delegate decision-making authority to campuses on such issues as athletic affiliations or conference memberships in certain cases. They include those that would have a significant adverse impact on other campuses in the UC system; to raise important issues involving university policy; or could create a significant risk of reputational damage to the university or any UC campus.
The governors expressed concerns about UCLA’s unilateral decision, which essentially excluded them from the process, and are expected to vote on the proposal to change the delegation of authority in similar situations during their September meeting.
The UC proposal would also require the university president to give advance notice of major athletics decisions to the board president and chair of the committee with jurisdiction over the matter at hand. Those leaders would then decide whether the matter should go to the full board for discussion.
The report released Wednesday also revealed that USC’s move to the Big Ten would represent an estimated loss of about $9.8 million in annual media rights for each of the remaining Pac-12 campuses given the Trojans’ status as a football viewership juggernaut; it suggested that UCLA’s departure could cause another loss of about one-third of that figure as well as the additional loss of ticket sales and apparel sales for remaining Pac-12 teams.
Among the nine UC campuses, the report stated that only UC Berkeley was expected to experience a significant impact from UCLA’s departure.
Assessing the impact of UCLA’s move on the well-being of its athletes, the report showed that eight sports would experience significant travel consequences – baseball, men’s soccer and men’s tennis, plus women’s soccer, softball, gymnastics, women’s volleyball and women’s tennis. According to Pamela Brown, UC’s vice president for institutional research and academic planning, teams could experience as much as an additional 24-hour difference in the time commitment for Big Ten trips as opposed to those in the Pac-12.
UCLA’s football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball teams have charter flights, meaning they would be marginally affected.
Sam Andress, who identified himself as a longtime supporter of UCLA’s athletic department, said during the public comment portion of the meeting that he supported the Bears’ move and questioned the importance of its impact on a rival.
“I find it a little shocking and unconscionable that you would expect fans, donors and alums to really look at what it has meant to the campus up north,” Andress said, referring to Cal. “… I think it will be a net positive for Los Angeles and the UCLA community.”
The rulers directed UC to conduct the audit after Governor Gavin Newsom called for more transparency about the details of UCLA’s plan to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in August 2024. Among other things, Newsom wanted to know the impact of the move on UCLA athletes based on the increased travel associated with competing in a coast-to-coast conference as well as the financial fallout that would result from Cal. being left behind in a diminished Pac-12.
Newsom did not attend the governors meeting on Wednesday.
Last month, Leib said UCLA made its Pac-12 departure quietly, informing UC President Michael V. Drake of discussions with the Big Ten but informing a “handful” of regents only shortly before the decision was announced.
Changing conferences is expected to significantly improve UCLA’s athletic department finances increasing the size of its recruiting base and enhancing its brand in a rapidly changing college sports landscape. Before fresh court settlement with Under Armour, the Bears’ athletic department was saddled with a record $102.8 million deficit. UCLA also faced the prospect of cutting Olympic sports teams in the coming years if the school remained in the Pac-12, whose revenue had fallen well behind that of its counterparts in other parts of the country.
With the addition of the Los Angeles television market thanks to the presence of USC and UCLA, the Big Ten finalizes a media rights deal that could raise a record $1.5 billion annually. The conference’s media partners are expected to include CBS and NBC in addition to Fox, which has been a longtime carrier of Big Ten games.
UCLA scored another win late last month when it secured $67.49 million settlement with Under Armour after suing the sportswear giant for breach of contract when Under Armor aborted the remaining years of a record $280 million deal. The school is expected to use the windfall to help pay off its debts.
Cal’s athletic department is also reeling from a financial bind. The Golden Bears completed the 2021 fiscal year with a $3.5 million surplus only after reportedly receiving $39 million from outside sources, including a $20.1 million check from the university to help cover expenses. Campus officials are also bailing out their athletic department by covering 55% of the annual $20 million in debt service on the school’s football stadium renovation, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
Cal’s finances become even more strained in the coming years due to the defections of the LA teams unless the Pac-12 owners can find a way to fortify themselves, possibly with new members. The Pac-12’s new media rights deal will take a major hit without USC and UCLA drawing an audience from Southern California.
That is, of course, if the Bruins can formally join their longtime nemesis as part of this seismic shift in the college sports landscape.