California Regents Hear Out Pac-12 on Whether to Block U.C.L.A.’s Move to Big Ten

SAN DIEGO — When members of the University of California Board of Regents met Thursday to discuss whether to quash U.C.L.A.’s move to the Big Ten Conference, they had an unexpected item to consider: a letter enumerating why the decision to join the conference was a bad idea — even a financial loser — for the state’s flagship public university.

The three-page letter arrived earlier this week from someone the regents had never heard from before: George Kliavkoff, the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference.

In the letter, obtained by The New York Times, Kliavkoff indicated that U.C.L.A. had not fully considered the consequences of its move, which was made largely to extricate the school’s athletic department from a financial hole but caught many of the regents by surprise and angered Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was upset by the lack of transparency.

In a special meeting last month, the regents said they could halt the move.

With the Pac-12 negotiating a new media rights deal — with or without U.C.L.A. — the letter by Kliavkoff may be considered a last-ditch effort to maintain a football presence in the lucrative Los Angeles television market. (The University of Southern California, which is private, also said it would move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten.)

Though Kliavkoff touched on issues that the regents discussed last month, his letter, which the board discussed in closed session, according to two people in the room who were not authorized to speak publicly, attempted to quantify the effects of U.C.L.A’s departure.

“No decisions,” U.C. President Michael V. Drake said in a brief interview after the three-day meetings concluded. “I think everybody is collecting information. It’s an evolving situation.”

Richard Leib, the chair of the Board of Regents, said he did not know when the regents would make a decision. “A lot of what was in the letter wasn’t new, but it added some detail,” he said, adding that he could not reveal what was discussed in closed session.

As it stands, the regents and the Pac-12 are in somewhat of a race against the clock. The regents, as slowly as they often move, recognize that schedules, logistics and other planning will start soon for U.C.L.A. and, to a lesser degree, Cal-Berkeley, the other U.C. school in the conference. And the Pac-12 is eager to close on its television deal. Both would prefer the other to go first.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California was upset over the lack of transparency because U.C.L.A.’s move affected Cal, another U.C. school.Credit…Lachlan Cunningham/Associated Press

In his letter, Kliavkoff, who declined an interview request, wrote that U.C.L.A. athletes would more than double their time spent in airplanes and increase by nearly half their time on buses traveling to the Central and Eastern time zones, which would affect their physical and mental health and hurt their academic performance. And with 70 percent of U.C.L.A.’s alumni on the West Coast, he wrote that it would be more arduous and expensive for them — and athletes’ families — to attend away games in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Most pointedly, Kliavkoff also wrote that much of the increased TV revenue that U.C.L.A. is expected to reap from the Big Ten’s seven-year, $7.5 billion media rights deal if it joins the conference for the 2024 football season would be eaten up by increased salaries for coaches and administrators that would be required to remain competitive, and by the need to charter flights to ensure that softball players are treated the same as football players when they travel.

U.C.L.A.’s travel costs, which are $8.1 million for its teams to travel in the Pac-12, would nearly triple — to $23.7 million — if all its flights were chartered, Kliavkoff wrote.

If the regents instructed U.C.L.A. to remain in the Pac-12, Kliavkoff wrote, it would offset more than half the damage done to Cal in the Pac-12’s impending media-rights deal. The U.C. system estimated that the departure of U.S.C. alone would diminish the 11 remaining Pac-12 schools’ media rights by $9.8 million per year. U.C.L.A’s departure would diminish the value of those rights further.

In a final nod to a board that may not be conversant in the semiprofessional world of major college sports, he noted that the increased travel contradicts the U.C. system’s objectives of helping to reverse climate change.

Kliavkoff acknowledged it was a heavy ask, but wrote that “for the current and future generations of U.C.L.A. student-athletes, we would strongly support a decision by the U.C. Board of Regents to reverse the decision made by U.C.L.A.”

The way U.C.L.A.’s intentioned move unfolded so quietly has agitated the regents enough that they are wrestling with revising rules on how they delegate authority — even if they choose to let U.C.L.A. go to the Big Ten. “The N.C.A.A. of 30 years ago probably made sense to leave with the chancellors,” Keith Ellis, an alumni-regent designate, said in an open session. “Not so much now.”

U.C.L.A. has portrayed its proposed move as a leap toward a financial life raft for an athletic department that had been swimming in red ink thanks to a floundering football program, an apparel deal turned sour and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Los Angeles Times reported in January that U.C.L.A.’s athletic department debt had ballooned to $102.8 million over the last three years. That number has been reduced after Under Armour paid the school $67.5 million earlier this year to settle a breach-of-contract lawsuit after the sports apparel company walked away from its contract with U.C.L.A., which had been the richest apparel agreement in college sports.

However, U.C.L.A.’s football attendance woes show no sign of abating. In three home games at the Rose Bowl against middling competition, the Bruins have played before announced crowds totaling 90,214 — still not enough to fill the venue.

U.C.L.A. and Cal are the jewels of the decorated University of California system, which has 10 campuses, an enrollment of nearly 300,000 and a $44 billion budget. To better manage the system’s vast bureaucracy, the campus chancellors were granted greater autonomy in 1991 to make agreements for their universities. (Coaching contracts are an exception.)

Over the years, even as the money involved in college athletics soared, chancellors’ authority became construed to mean that they could operate with fewer headwinds.

So when U.C.L.A. was deep in talks with U.S.C., the Big Ten and its media partner, Fox Sports, U.C.L.A Chancellor Gene Block informed Drake, the U.C. president who oversees the university chancellors. Drake is a seasoned participant in that world, having served as chair of the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors when he was the president at Ohio State.

While Block informed Drake of the talks, only a handful of regents were aware until shortly before the Los Angeles schools’ departure was reported on June 30 by the San Jose Mercury News. The political ramifications were quickly made clear when Newsom, who is a nonvoting board member and appoints some of the regents, was upset at the lack of transparency because of its impact on another U.C. school.

Still, the move seemed little more than a fait accompli until Charlie Robinson, the U.C. general counsel, told the regents last month that they had the power to nix the agreement. “When the regents and the president extended authority to the chancellors, they didn’t give it away,” Robinson told the regents last month.

Leib, the board chair, said on Wednesday that “in my mind, this is absolutely in the purview of the regents.” He said he expected the board would make a decision on whether to intervene by the end of the year. “By November, it will get more clear.”

Block was asked Thursday morning, standing outside the Price Center, the U.C. San Diego student center where the three-day meeting was held this week, if he was surprised by the place U.C.L.A. finds itself in.

“I’d be happy to talk to you; I’m available. But I’m being respectful to the regents,” Block said. Asked why, as U.C.L.A.’s top official, he wouldn’t address such a significant story, Block nodded. “It is,” he said. “At the appropriate time, we’ll talk about it.”

And with that he excused himself and walked up a staircase, saying he had to get to the meeting. It was scheduled to start 25 minutes later.

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