Within hours of the stunning news last summer that UCLA was bolting the Pac-12 Conference, along with the University of Southern California, for a rich Big Ten media contract, emails began peppering the inbox of UCLA’s athletic director, Martin Jarmond.
“I’m glad my father didn’t live to see this,” wrote Brian Birkenstein, class of ’96, who didn’t miss a home football game as a student. “This move just screams of the hypocritical values that UCLA evidently has,” wrote Eugene Chiang, class of ’88, who added that he would no longer be a fan, a donor or an advocate. “I graduated from UCLA 50 years ago and have NEVER been ashamed of my alma mater … until today!” wrote Jerry Macy, class of ’72.
It was much the same for the inbox of Chancellor Gene D. Block.
“It feels like the chasm between student and athlete just got even wider,” Tal Johnson, a UCLA parent, wrote to the chancellor. “Legacy and geography, and the relationship with alums, is more important, in my view, than TV money,” wrote Sean J. Mulvihill, a physician who did his residency at UCLA
The nearly four dozen angry emails sent to the athletic director and chancellor in the immediate aftermath of the June 30 announcement largely decried the move, sometimes less than politely, as a shortsighted, tradition-ignoring money grab.
The sample size may be too small to judge the move’s opposition. Still, it is telling how few emails, obtained by The New York Times through a public records request, supported it.
The handful of notes congratulating Jarmond, the athletic director, seemed to be from UCLA employees or from people he had encountered in over a dozen years working in the Big Ten at Michigan State and Ohio State.
As the University of California Board of Regents prepares to vote Wednesday on whether to block UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, those few congratulatory emails Jarmond received seem to be instructive in another way. In the nearly six months since the proposed move was announced, there has not been much visible enthusiasm for it.
In a survey of UCLA athletes conducted for the Regents, only 35 percent of the 111 respondents said they thought the move was a good idea. (Only about one in six athletes even responded to the survey.) Bill Walton, one of UCLA’s most renowned former athletes, has urged the Regents to reject the move.
So has another former UCLA athlete, the football player Ramogi Huma. As the executive director of the National College Players Association, an athlete advocacy group, he told the Regents in a letter last week that the increased travel to far-afield campuses in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey would place a greater burden on Black male athletes , whose graduation rates at the university are about 50 percent, compared with 73 percent for Black male students overall at UCLA
The move also attracted the attention of Nancy Skinner, a state lawmaker who is considering introducing legislation that would put stricter limits on the time athletes at California schools spend practicing, playing and traveling for their sport.
So while there has been a steady stream of opposition, there has barely been a drip of organized public support for UCLA’s move — or prominent athletes that have been boosters for it.
Unlike when, say, Rutgers joined the Big Ten nearly a decade ago, the administrative fervor is less about a road to relevance — UCLA’s women’s soccer team recently captured the school’s 120th NCAA championship — than it is financial pragmatism.
The increased revenue is one way UCLA, whose athletic department deficit ballooned to $103.1 million, according to the school’s statement of revenues and expenses, can afford a broad-based athletic program that gets scanned financial support from the university.
Block and Jarmond have been largely silent beyond addressing the Regents, sometimes privately, to make their case for the move. Block apologized to Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington, for not providing advance notice and called the move “personally anguishing,” according to a letter obtained by The Athletic through a public records request.
At a Sports Business Journal conference last week in Las Vegas, Jarmond urged college athletic administrators to do a “better job of communication to people who don’t understand our business.”
Asked afterwards why UCLA had not garnered much public support for the move, Jarmond declined to comment.
When the leap to the Big Ten was announced this summer, there was little indication that UCLA needed marshal support. It was viewed as a fait accompli since chancellors in the University of California system, which has 10 campuses, have been given broad discretion in managing their campuses for decades.
But the Regents began to ask questions because UCLA’s departure would result in a financial hit for a sister school, the University of California, Berkeley. Its revenue from a Pac-12 television contract would be reduced by millions of dollars because the conference would be losing the Los Angeles market.
It also did not help UCLA that many of the Regents — including Gov. Gavin Newsom — were upset about being kept in the dark on such a consequential matter.
Then, in August, the Regents were informed by their general counsel, Charles Robinson, that even though they had delegated authority to the chancellors, they had not relinquished it.
In subsequent meetings, in September and November, the Regents have pushed UCLA for answers on how membership in the Big Ten would help financially and the impact it would have on athletes’ health and academics. UCLA said it expected to reap $60 million to $70 million per year in television revenue when it joined the Big Ten for the 2024-25 school year, about double what it brings in from its membership in the Pac-12.
That annual revenue would be offset by about $10 million in new costs for travel and nutritional, academic and mental health support, the university said.
But the Regents have struggled to understand what would happen if UCLA remained in the Pac-12. Though George Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, has urged the Regents to block UCLA’s move, he has not been able to close a television rights deal to provide them with a firm comparison.
(The Big 12 recently agreed to a media rights deal worth $31.7 million per school per year, which is seen as a loose target for where the Pac-12 — without a presence in the Los Angeles market — figures to land.)
While the Pac-12 has been in negotiations with ESPN and Amazon, among others, there has been belt-tightening across the industry as the year comes to a close.
According to Nielsen Media Research, which tracks television ratings, ESPN and ESPN2 subscribers dropped 7 percent since January, while ESPNU declined 12 percent. The Fox Sports cable channels, FS1 and FS2, lost 6 percent and 11 percent of their subscribers. And the Big Ten Network, the most widely distributed conference channel, lost 9 percent of its subscribers.
Kliavkoff expects the Pac-12 to complete its new contract in the first half of 2023.
As the Regents have been collecting information, many of them have been hoping the problem will solve itself. One option they are considering, but have not yet considered, is to allow UCLA to leave but to require it to compensate Berkeley for lost revenue.
While the Regents have raised questions about whether UCLA’s exit creates new problems while solving current ones, some on the board have expressed unease with reversing a decision because of the precedent it would set.
In the end, even if the Regents leave Wednesday’s meeting, having removed a final obstacle for UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, they may share a prevailing sentiment: little enthusiasm for it.
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