California Regents Set December Showdown for U.C.L.A.’s Big Ten Move

SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California Board of Regents on Thursday put off until next month a decision whether to bless or block U.C.L.A.’s move to the Big Ten Conference, saying it needed more time — and information — before making such a consequential call that would also affect the state’s other flagship university, Cal-Berkeley.

The regents have expressed concern about the burden that repeated trips to the Eastern time zone for competitions would place on athletes’ academics and the financial hit Berkeley would take after U.C.L.A.’s departure. But they were also hesitant to set a precedent by overturning — and undercutting the autonomy of — one of their 10 campus chancellors.

So, after meeting in a closed session for 90 minutes, the regents emerged to announce that they would hold a special session on Dec. 14 to resolve the matter.

“I’d look at it like a football game where the call on the field is being reviewed,” said the regent John A. Pérez, a former Assembly speaker. “It’s not about whether we would make the same call. It is whether there is clear evidence that it should be overturned.”

Martin Jarmond, the U.C.L.A. athletic director, called the meeting “informative,” but declined further comment as he hustled to catch a ride to an airport.

U.C. President Michael Drake said the special meeting would “pressure test” the plans U.C.L.A. has laid out. During the open session, a handful of regents asked U.C.L.A. Chancellor Gene Block for more information while revealing little about which way they might be leaning.

Behind the scenes, though, there has been maneuvering.

The regents have expressed some disappointment that the Pac-12 Conference is in negotiations for a television rights deal, because there is no direct comparison against what U.C.L.A. has said will be annual revenues of $60 million to $70 million under the Big Ten contract. (The school has estimated it will spend an additional $10 million per year on travel, nutritional, academic and mental health services after switching conferences.)

But last month, the Pac-12 provided to several regents a glimpse of what its deal, which it has been negotiating for months, might look like if U.C.L.A. decided to remain: a range between $42 million and $47 million per school, with U.C.L.A. getting a little more than the remaining 10 schools in the Pac-12 once Southern California leaves for the Big Ten in 2024, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss them. The holdovers in turn would be getting a little more than San Diego State if it left the Mountain West to become the conference’s 12th team.

Then the Big 12 announced its deal with Fox and ESPN, which will be worth $31.7 million per school.

That number was far enough below expectations that the Pac-12 lowered its estimates for the regents by about 10 percent.

Whether the Pac-12 can present to the regents firm numbers with a finalized television rights agreement by mid-December is uncertain.

The Pac-12’s willingness to sweeten the offer for U.C.L.A. also included a willingness to pay the buyout the Los Angeles school would have to fork over to break the Big Ten agreement. That buyout is $15 million, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal terms of the deal.

Multi-tier payouts are not unique in college sports. Gonzaga, for example, receives a greater share of the West Coast Conference’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament revenue, and Rutgers joined the Big Ten knowing it would not receive the same payout as longstanding members for at least six years.

But while such a tiered arrangement might incentivize U.C.L.A. to return, which would in turn bring additional revenue for the other schools in the conference, it would create a built-in revenue gap between U.C.L.A. and Berkeley — one of the main issues that drew scrutiny from the regents in the first place.

Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said the increased professionalization of college football and men’s basketball was bad for athletes, particularly women.Credit…Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

When the Big Ten announced on June 30 that it would be welcoming U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. for the 2024-25 season — shortly after the San Jose Mercury News had reported the departure — the shock was not just the breadth of the move but how surreptitiously it had been undertaken.

A small handful of regents, including Richard Leib, the chairman, and Drake, the U.C. president, had been informed of the impending move a few days earlier but were directed to keep quiet.

Though U.C.L.A. did not sign the agreement with the Big Ten until July 13, the Los Angeles schools’ departure was seen as a done deal since the regents, in the early 1990s, had granted broader decision-making authority to the campus chancellors.

However, amid anger from Gov. Gavin Newsom — and others on the board — that they had been kept in the dark about a decision that benefited U.C.L.A. at the expense of Berkeley, the U.C.’s general counsel told the regents in August that even though they had delegated authority to the chancellors they had not relinquished it.

The upshot: the regents could block the move if they so chose to do so.

Over the course of the next few months, as the regents began to learn more about a subject — big-time college sports — in which almost none of them were fluent, they began to center their concern on what extensive travel to places like College Park, Md.; State College, Pa.; and East Lansing, Mich., would have on athletes’ education.

Nancy Skinner, the California state lawmaker who helped launch a nationwide flurry of state legislation that enabled college athletes to earn money from endorsements, said she may craft a bill restricting the amount of time — travel included — that California colleges could demand their athletes spend on their sport.

Still, several regents said, they also worried about setting a precedent by reversing a decision made by a campus. (To that end, the regents have been considering alterations to the bylaws to prevent chancellors from acting unilaterally on a similarly consequential decision again.)

The regents, though, never came close to reaching a decision on Thursday.

The questions in open session hinted not just at the underlying issues they are trying to resolve, but also about the role of college athletics as a billion-dollar business enterprise that is becoming less and less tethered to the college ideal.

When the regent Lark Park asked Block and his counterpart, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, to explain how their thinking about conference membership had evolved in recent months, their answers were revealing.

Block, whose athletic department has lost $103.1 million in revenue over the last three years that it has been forced to cover with a loan from the university, described his school’s leap as necessary in a “volatile” climate. He added that the increased revenue could be used to invest in programs that could then be put in place across the campus. “It’s not simple; it’s painful,” Block said. “But was in the best interests of our student-athletes and in the best interests of our institution.”

Christ, who signed off on a $20.1 million subsidy from the university to the athletic department in the 2021 fiscal year, acknowledged the volatile environment and said conference consolidation and the increased professionalization of college football and men’s basketball was bad for athletes, particularly women.

“I’m seeing changes that I very much decry,” she said.

The exchange clearly laid out the two paths available, one of which by next month the regents will presumably choose.

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