Some Thoughts on UCLA Moving to the Big Ten
Putting together some things running through my head after one of the wildest days in UCLA sports history.
So how are we all feeling today?
In case you missed the news yesterday, UCLA has now officially announced its intention to join the Big Ten Conference alongside Southern Cal starting in 2024. It was a wild day where the reporting came out of nowhere, but once the floodgates opened the news was flowing like wine. I tried to gather everything together in this handy article, but now things are official.
There have been a lot of thoughts swimming through my head since the initial Jon Wilner tweet sent shockwaves through the college football world Thursday morning. I’m going to try and work through some of the smaller ones, saving the bigger ones for articles in the next few weeks. Speaking of…
UCLA’s Move is a Gift to Me, the Person Desperate for Content to Write About During the Long Summer Months Now that he got a New Computer After a Month
I mean, this is just self-explanatory.
The UCLA-USC Relationship is Forever
There has been something of an open question in Los Angeles on the dynamics between UCLA and USC, especially from the Southern Cal side. We all know football is driving the decisions these days, and when it comes to football, there are few sides that can call their shots like the Southern Cal brand can. And yet, when presented with the opportunity to chart its own course in the new college sports landscape, Southern Cal made sure to act in concert with UCLA.
This is no small thing. For one, any move by UCLA would necessarily involve a conscious decoupling of the school from UC Berkeley, which has long been thought to be something of a non-starter for the normally risk-averse UCLA administration. And it’s not like Southern Cal did not have any other appealing options instead of UCLA; Stanford offered regional and historical rivalry as well, Oregon offered another football power, and Washington offered a historical power in a different media market.
But at the end of the day, it was always going to be UCLA and USC together. For the Trojans, it’s an admission that while they might claim that Notre Dame is their biggest rival, they know deep down that it is UCLA, and that having both schools from Los Angeles is much more appealing to any conference than just having one. With both LA schools in the fold, the Big Ten can almost guarantee its members a trip to Southern California at least once in a four-year stretch, guarantees two different feature games in the country’s second-largest media market, and gives access to the prestige of two of the best academic and athletic programs in the country. UCLA and Southern Cal also act symbiotically with each other in that they are traditional blue bloods in the two biggest revenue sports while having room to grow in the other, with the Trojans being a traditional football power while UCLA is a traditional basketball power.
In essence, UCLA and USC are Batman and the Joker, destined to do this forever.
The Olympic Sports Will Be Fine
There is some justifiable angst from sections of the UCLA fanbase regarding how this move will affect the non-revenue sports. Let's start with the basics that most of these sports will find a home in the Big Ten, with the few that the conference does not support (like men’s volleyball, water polo, and beach volleyball) will continue to remain in the MPSF. The large increase in revenue would also provide UCLA the opportunity to potentially add more sports, such as ice hockey, which is currently a club sport on campus.
It’s that huge increase in revenue that ultimately leads me to believe the Olympic sports will be ok. Sure, a good chunk of that increase in revenue will go towards football and basketball, but there will be more than enough to make things as comfortable as possible for the Olympic sports going forward. That’s the nice thing about money - it can fix a lot of issues, and UCLA will have a LOT of money to fix issues going forward.
Oregon and Washington are Not the Next Domino…
When it became clear that the UCLA and USC move was, in fact, real, all eyes suddenly turned towards the other two name brands in Pac-12 football to see what their next move would be. What Oregon and Washington do next will in many ways dictate what happens to the rest of the Pac-12, and as of late Thursday night there were scattered reports both schools were on the verge of applying to the Big Ten.
But I am not positive either school is a lock to join, for a few reasons. For one, reports are that by adding UCLA and USC to their conference, the Big Ten is looking at a media rights deal that could pay each school around $100 million. At that price point, any other add would need to be worth $100 million on its own, and it is hard to see either Oregon or Washington necessarily reaching that point. Washington maybe has more of a case here - Seattle is the 14th largest media market in the country, which combines with its historical prestige and large academic focus to make a strong enough case for membership. Oregon will play on their national brand, but the closest media center to the school is Portland, which is down at 25th. That’s just going to be a hard sell. Stanford and UC Berkeley have a much better case than either school thanks to the Bay Area, but there have been enough rumblings over the past few years that those schools may be looking to deemphasize athletics going forward.
The actual next domino to fall is the biggest remaining domino left: Notre Dame. The Irish are the last major independent on the table, and while they are nominally aligned with the ACC, it would not be hard for them to get out of it. Notre Dame is more culturally-aligned with the Big Ten and already has rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue (I am also told they have a rivalry with Southern Cal, I may need to check in on this). The ACC is likely going to put pressure on the Irish to officially become a member in the next few weeks, as that is realistically the best shot the conference has to avoid the SEC coming in to poach Clemson and Florida State, but the Big Ten can pitch adding Notre Dame and one other school (potentially Stanford to maintain another rivalry and major media market) and would thus have the pieces to raise the rights bar even further. Maybe even raise them enough to justify bringing in Oregon and Washington.
Watch Notre Dame over the next few weeks. That’s the next big domino.
UCLA is Taking Athletics Seriously for the First Time
Here’s my last thought for the moment: this deal does not happen unless UCLA was willing to take athletics, especially football, more seriously.
We’ve heard for YEARS that UCLA was never going to become a big-time football program because the administration was never willing to get behind it and do the things that top-level programs do. In other words, the institutional will was not there.
That definitely will not be the case going forward.
The simple fact is that this move would not have been made if the UCLA administration, including president Gene Block, was not in support of it. Reporting is that USC was the driving force behind the move, but you have to assume athletic director Martin Jarmond was able to get the UCLA administration on board with the numerous positives the move would represent. Jarmond had to get Block and the rest of the UCLA apparatus to agree to decouple from UC Berkeley from an athletics standpoint! That’s huge!
But beyond that, there also has to be an understanding from the UCLA administration that this move is necessary to keep UCLA as a player in high-level athletic school, and that there are things the administration will need to do once the move actually takes place. Michigan stands as a clear sign that you can be great at academics and athletics at the same time, and Michigan is as close to a peer as UCLA will find in this day and age. There is no reason to believe UCLA cannot function at Michigan’s level and this move to the Big Ten is a signal that UCLA believes it can accomplish that.
One teaser for the road:
Chip Kelly is on a Timer