Today, November 17, the University of California Board of Regents (“Board of Regents” or “Board”) will meet to discuss a variety of issues, including UCLA’s move to the Big Ten Conference. Specifically, on June 30, 2022, UCLA suddenly announced its plan to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten Conference beginning in the year 2024. Id. UCLA’s decision to move to the Big Ten raised several procedural and substantive questions for the Board of Regents, which had been discussed during the Board’s July 20 meeting, August 17 meeting, and September 22 meeting. Id. Moreover, according to the executive summary, the Board of Regents had discussed UCLA’s prospective membership in the Big Ten, including its associated financial and legal implications. Id. Ultimately, the Board of Regents can still choose to exercise its authority to withdraw UCLA from its agreement with the Big Ten with much of its concerns centered around student-athlete experience, financial impacts, and legal risks. Id.
Considerations and Risk
As mentioned, the Board of Regents identified three areas of consideration they are considering to determine whether they will exercise its authority to withdraw UCLA from its agreement with the Big Ten. The Board’s authority to withdraw would trump the authority exercised by UCLA’s President this past June, when he agreed to move his institution to the Big Ten.
A top priority of the Board is the student athlete experience. The Board recognizes that the Student-athletes of UCLA commit an extraordinary amount of their time to athletics, including, training sessions, travel, and competition. Id. Moving to the Big Ten will impact student-athletes’ time spent traveling, which will inherently have academic impacts. Id. On the flip side, it appears that the Board has identified a move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten as potential improvement in competitiveness and greater media exposure for Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). Id.
In addition to the student-athlete experience, the Board is taking into consideration the financial impacts that a move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten will have on UCLA. Id. UCLA generates 30% of its total revenue from media rights deals, conference distributions, and NCAA distributions. Moreover, as a result of the financial impact of the pandemic and additional lingering issues, UCLA has amassed a $103 million deficit and is thus in need of additional funding.  It is clear that a move to the Big Ten is enticing in this regard because the Big Ten anticipates an increase in ticket and merchandise sales, as well as a lucrative contract that is expected to pay up to $70 million in media rights alone. Id. By comparison, the PAC-12 deal, although is still in negotiations now, is expected to pay just a fraction of what the Big Ten’s contract will pay. Id.
Despite the clear financial incentives to moving to the Big Ten, there are additional cost considerations that must be taken in to account with the move. Specifically, UCLA anticipates the need to increase its expenses about $9.15 million to $10.32 million per year in order to accommodate the increase in travel, academic support, nutrition, and continuing support for student athlete mental health. Id.
Contract and Legal Considerations
Of course, the Board is concerned about UCLA signing the agreement with the Big Ten Conference officially, on July 13, 2022. Id. As a result, the University of California legal department issued an analysis of the potential legal issues and litigation risks associated with the UCLA to the Big Ten Agreement. It’s unclear exactly what the legal department identified as potential issues, but clearly a breach of contract cause of action could be lingering if in-fact the Board of Regents exercises its authority to withdraw UCLA from the Big Ten.
It remains unclear whether the Board of Regents will exercise its authority to withdraw UCLA from the Big Ten or not. Nevertheless, the above information provides an insight to the scope of the conversations that decision-makers are having with regard to conference realignment.