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UCLA’s move to Big Ten faces one last hurdle as board mulls barring exit

UCLA is set to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten pending a decision from the California Board of Regents. (Jed Jacobsohn/AP)
7 min

On the eve of the 2011 college football season, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott declared the conference’s future “as bright as it has ever been” after adding Utah and Colorado and signing what he called a “landmark,” 12-year broadcast deal with Fox and ESPN that promised to deliver unprecedented national exposure.

Barely a decade later, UCLA, one of the crown jewels of California’s public university system and a longtime Pac-12 member, is poised to defect to the Big Ten. So, too, is Southern California, whose stunning turnaround under first-year coach Lincoln Riley and Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams has restored Trojans football to national prominence.

On Wednesday, the California Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s 10-campus system of public universities, will meet in a special session to consider blocking UCLA’s exit. The board can’t dictate what USC, a private institution, does. It is not entirely clear, for that matter, the extent of the regents’ control of UCLA; while the panel oversees California’s public universities, it doesn’t typically micromanage individual campuses.

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Wednesday’s closed-door deliberations come nearly six months after the Big Ten announced June 30 that it had brokered a deal to add UCLA and USC, swelling the inaptly named 14-member conference to 16 starting with the 2024-25 season. From a business perspective, that expansion will extend the Big Ten’s geographical reach to the West Coast after it annexed the East Coast via the 2014 additions of Maryland and Rutgers.

While the California Board of Regents has maintained it has the authority to block UCLA’s exit, it’s unclear whether it would withstand a legal challenge given the power the panel has delegated to individual campuses.

“Could they in theory do it?” Daniel T. Durbin, founder and director of USC’s Institute of Sports, Media and Society, said in an interview. “Well, this is an unprecedented moment.”

It is also unclear whether blocking UCLA’s exit would be wise, even if the board could.

“If they tried to block this move, it just opens up all these other potential potholes,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the Sports Business Program at Washington University in St. Louis. “Whether [future debates are about] academic or other issues, now all the sudden it would be ripe for discussion if the board is going to make this move.”

Moreover, he added, denying UCLA’s wish to leave wouldn’t solve underlying financial strains the Bruins face.

“I would be surprised if they block UCLA from making this move,” Rishe added. “If they somehow tried, I believe we’re looking at a lawsuit.”

In California, news of the move by USC and UCLA isn’t going down any better today than it did upon the stunning announcement, so stealthily brokered that it caught even some regents by surprise. For months, California policymakers and athletic administrators have debated who stands to benefit — and who will be harmed — by UCLA’s exodus.

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff characterized it as troubling during Oct. 25 remarks to tip off the college basketball season, saying: “I lament the fact that there are some decisions being made for apparent short-term financial gains. I’m not even sure there are financial gains, but that undoubtedly is the reason those decisions were made, and that’s unfortunate.”

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The College Players Association, which has long advocated for athletes’ rights, decried the move in a December letter imploring the regents to block UCLA’s departure as “a shortsighted money grab” that would harm all Bruins athletes by compounding the undue physical, emotional and academic stress they already shoulder from excessive playing, practice and travel demands.

“Not all money is good money,” wrote Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker who is the group’s executive director. “The Regents should not let a handful of people sell the soul of the UCLA athletics program for TV dollars that will be spent on luxury boxes in stadiums and lavish salaries for a few.”

The Pac-12 convulsions, which follow the SEC’s 2021 vote to expand to 16 with the 2025 additions of Texas and Oklahoma, are being watched closely by other conferences, academics, legal scholars and groups trying to keep big-time college sports tethered to higher education.

“The financial bottom line is: Everything is media rights,” Durbin said. “The money is in the media. You want to have a full stadium so people look at the TV or their phones and see a full stadium and it seems exciting. But the bottom line is: Everything is tied to media rights. There are huge media rights packages.”

And in college sports’ revenue-driven world, the Pac-12 lags behind the other four major conferences — the ACC, the Big 12 and particularly the Big Ten and the SEC.

Among the reasons, Rishe explained, is a 2011 decision by Scott, the former commissioner, to sign a 12-year media rights deal that inadvertently enabled rival conferences with shorter-term deals to sign far more lucrative deals as the value of broadcast rights increased.

Rishe cites 2019 NCAA data that reflect the subsequent inequity. That year, the average SEC athletics program had a budget of approximately $150 million. The average Big Ten school’s athletic budget was $142 million. And the Pac-12’s was roughly $105 million, lowest among the Power Five.

It hasn’t helped, Rishe added, that TV ratings are generally lower for the Pac-12’s West Coast games, resulting in lower partnership deals, or that the Pac-12’s fan base lacks the football fervor of its Big Ten and SEC counterparts.

Durbin, the USC professor, also noted that Scott’s launch of the Pac-12 Network in 2012 proved ill-fated because it simply didn’t have enough compelling content to draw huge audiences. Add to that the constraints of the long-term broadcast deal, Durbin said, and the Pac-12 fell behind as other conferences signed massive contracts as the values rapidly increased.

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“[It] seemed like a good idea in the short term and worked for the first year or two, but each one of them was a long-term disaster,” Durbin said. “They did not look ahead past two, three or four years. And that was the seal of death for the Pac-12.”

Today, as UCLA and USC defect for a share of the Big Ten’s billion-dollar media rights deal, the fear among the Pac-12 faithful is that others, such as Oregon and Washington, may follow. There’s also worry for those that remain: Without schools that deliver the Los Angeles market, how much will the Pac-12’s future media deals suffer?

Regardless, many believe further scrambling among Football Bowl Subdivision conferences is inevitable once the College Football Playoff expands from four to 12 teams, which is projected to quadruple the windfall shared among the major football-playing conferences from nearly $500 million to roughly $2 billion.

Without controls on spending or a significant rethinking of priorities, Len Elmore, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletes as well as an attorney and a former NBA player, predicts a “runaway train” of football spending once the 12-team playoff floods the sport with new revenue.

“Conference realignment from a media [revenue] standpoint has already become a case of musical chairs,” Elmore said during a recent conference call. “Programs are trying to [be in] the conference that they think is going to make the most money so they can be part of it.”