After months of haggling over UCLA’s end-around move to join the Big Ten Conference, the University of California regents are stepping aside and allowing the departure to proceed as planned.
The regents voted during a meeting Wednesday at UCLA to allow the Bruins to join the Big Ten provided they take measures to mitigate travel and address other athlete well-being issues.
By joining crosstown rival USC as part of an expanded Big Ten that will include 16 teams — stationery be damned — the Bruins will help form the nation’s first coast-to-coast conference as well as a worthy foil to the supercharged Southeastern Conference.
The move slated for August 2024 is expected to secure the financial future of a UCLA athletic department swimming in nine figures of debt while also avoiding the possibility of cutting Olympic sports teams. In just its first year of Big Ten membership, the school is projected to pocket $65 million to $75 million in media rights revenue, roughly doubling what it would have made by remaining in the Pac-12 Conference.
UCLA’s bolting for greener pastures while leaving its sister school, UC Berkeley, behind as part of a diminished Pac-12 were among the reasons the move caused a massive uproar in political and academic circles. A few weeks after the decision was announced June 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom expressed outrage that UCLA would make such a monumental move without fully disclosing its plans to the regents except for UC President Michael V. Drake.
The regents voted 11-5 to allow the move. Conditions include providing roughly $6.3 million to academic support, nutritional support and mental health services for all student-athletes. The largest amount — $4.3 million — will be for food, requiring breakfast and lunch on campus for all UCLA athletes, professional dietitian services and nutritious meals while traveling.
The regents spent several months assessing the proposed move, as well as their ability to thwart its execution if they chose to do so. During a meeting at UCLA’s Luskin Center in August, UC system attorney Charlie Robinson told the regents they retained the authority to block UCLA’s departure even though UCLA Chancellor Gene Block had operated within his delegated authority to execute a contract involving his school.
Other critics of the move weighed in, including Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, UCLA basketball legend Bill Walton and Ramogi Huma, a former Bruins linebacker and executive director of the National College Players Assn. Among their concerns were increased travel demands on athletes, the abandonment of traditional rivalries and the lack of beneficiaries besides UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond and a handful of highly compensated coaches on campus.
“Not all money is good money,” Huma wrote in a recent letter to the regents. “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.”
Since announcing the move, Jarmond and Block have remained steadfast in supporting their belief that Big Ten membership would bolster their athletic department by enhancing its brand and increasing its recruiting base, among other benefits. At a regents meeting last month, Block committed to spending at least $10 million for enhanced nutrition, travel, academic support and mental health services for athletes.
The Big Ten has pledged to help offset some of UCLA’s increased travel costs by holding neutral-site jamborees involving Olympic sports from multiple conference schools, and the Bruins could lower airfare expenses by sharing flights with USC teams.
Block has cited increased national exposure for UCLA athletes and stronger competition as additional reasons why Big Ten membership would benefit the Bruins. The Big Ten has placed eight teams into the College Football Playoff since its debut following the 2014 season as opposed to only two from the Pac-12 — none since the 2016 season. Additionally, the Big Ten put nine teams in the 2022 NCAA men’s basketball tournament compared to only three from the Pac-12.
“The student-athletes have been excited about the opportunity to compete with the best teams,” Block told the regents last month. “In the end, we decided this was the best move for UCLA.”
In a rare display of unity between archrivals, UCLA athletes prioritized remaining in the same conference with USC over Cal. According to a survey of 111 Bruins athletes conducted by UCLA and the UC Office of the President, 93% said it was important or very important to keep UCLA in the same conference as USC compared to only 24% who said keeping UCLA and Cal together met the same level of importance.
With the regents clearing the way for UCLA to join the Big Ten, the Bruins will have plenty of new possible rivals to choose from in the years to come.