Holiday Bowl sues Pac-12 and UC regents over UCLA’s 2021 withdrawal from game

Tribune Content Agency

The San Diego Bowl Game Assn. is seeking a minimum payment of $3 million in compensatory damages from the Pac-12 Conference and the University of California Regents, stemming from the UCLA football team backing out of the 2021 Holiday Bowl in the hours before kickoff because of a rash of positive COVID-19 tests that depleted the depth of its defensive line.

In a lawsuit filed in California Superior Court in San Diego County on Wednesday morning, the SDBGA alleges “a failure of defendants to accept responsibility and accountability for their conduct, which caused substantial damages to plaintiff.”

The SDBGA said in the filing it lost more than $3.6 million in ticket revenue it had to refund as a result of the cancellation and $1.4 million that had to be returned to the game’s title sponsor. The bowl’s total losses approached $8 million.

“Despite the Pac-12’s good faith efforts to find an amicable and fair resolution, the Holiday Bowl filed a lawsuit this week seeking to leverage for its own financial gain the global COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the 2021 Holiday Bowl,” said a Pac-12 statement Wednesday. “The Holiday Bowl is now also refusing to pay the fees it owes the Pac-12 for our member institution’s participation in the 2022 Holiday Bowl, in clear breach of our agreement.

“The Pac-12 plans to vigorously defend against the lawsuit.”

The bowl argued in the lawsuit that its obligation to the Pac-12 for the participation of the Oregon Ducks in December 2022 game against North Carolina was $2.45 million. According to sources familiar with the ongoing discussions between the sides, the SDBGA informed the Pac-12 a week before the payment’s due date in April that it would apply the payment toward what it felt the Pac-12 owed from UCLA’s 2021 cancellation.

“This offset was fair, just and equitable,” the filing states.

At issue in the case will be whether the Pac-12 correctly applied the “force majeure” provision of the contract the bowl and the conference signed in 2019 as a reason to not participate that will hold up under law.

The clause states, “No party hereto shall be held responsible for damages caused by delay or failure to perform under this agreement when such delay or failure is due to fire, act of God, national emergency, terrorist acts, labor dispute, inclement weather, legal acts of public impediment making the holding of the HBG undesirable upon the part of any party hereto, actions by any member or members of the opposing team scheduled to play in the HBG, or any unavoidable casualty, which cannot be reasonably forecast or provided against.”

The 2020 Holiday Bowl was canceled due to pandemic restrictions in California, which hurt the SDBGA financially. In 2021, a full college football season was played, and the bowl selected UCLA and North Carolina State as its teams. The lawsuit points states the Bruins enjoyed the bowl festivities leading up to the game, including a trip to Sea World, a visit to a U.S. Navy ship and other team events. The filing also mentions UCLA players, coaches and administrators “took advantage of hosted food and beverage at a hospitality suite furnished for them as part of their participation.”

The UCLA football social media account posted videos of players participating in the events, with some of them unmasked.

The announcement at noon on game day that UCLA could not play the game due to depth concerns at a key position group came as a shock.

UCLA declined to comment to The Times Wednesday.

The Holiday Bowl was the fifth bowl game to be canceled in 2021 as the Omicron variant surged across the country.

“SDBGA has informed the Pac-12 that it disputes the applicability of the force majeure provision, agreed to in 2019 before the emergence of Covid, as it does not encompass the circumstances invoked by UCLA as the basis of its refusal to play,” the filing states. “The force majeure clause could have been negotiated to include pandemic impacts and considerations but was not. As other courts around the country have consistently found, force majeure clauses are interpreted narrowly according to their words such that the Pac-12 is not relieved of its contractual obligations under the express language of the 2019 contract.”

Wednesday’s filing comes after more than a year of discussions between the sides. The sources say the Pac-12 offered to take the dispute to an independent arbiter who could decide whether force majeure had been correctly applied, but that option was not pursued by the SDBGA.

The Pac-12 will be pushing for the court to require the SDBGA fulfill its contractual obligation to pay the conference $2.45 million for Oregon’s participation in the 2022 Holiday Bowl.

In addition to receiving compensatory damages of at least $3 million, the SDBGA is seeking an order that the defendants “must indemnify SDBGA from and against all harm arising from the cancellation of the 2021 Holiday Bowl” and reimbursement of its attorney fees.

The Pac-12 and the Holiday Bowl remain partners under contract through the 2025 game. UCLA is leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten in 2024.