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Last spring, just weeks after learning that their team would be cut, Dominic Fratantuono – a starting outfielder on the Towson baseball team – and Hunter Bennett – the starting shortstop – were on the field at John B. Schuerholz Park warming up for an afternoon game against the Delaware State Hornets.

However, unlike that grim day when the team was informed that University was going to cut the program just hours before the conference opener against Delaware, Fratantuono, Bennett and the rest of their teammates found themselves with a renewed sense of purpose.

Prior to the game, Gov. Martin O’Malley announced that he reached a compromise with University President Maravene Loeschke to save the team. He was going to budget out $300,000 toward the baseball program, but the money would not become available until the program had raised $100,000 for each of the next two seasons.

“It was all a huge shock at first. It goes to show you that people do really care about us, even the governor,” Fratantuono said, reflecting back to April 2.

While just a proposition, the fundraising opportunity provided a lifeline for Fratantuono and Bennett to finish their collegiate careers. The juniors faced the proposition of leaving Towson to continue their baseball dream, even if it was just for one more year. Fratantuono had just returned from a visit to Coastal Carolina, while Bennett had decided that he was going to finish out his collegiate career at Towson, without playing baseball.

“It was a huge sense of relief,” Bennett said. “Obviously, we all hoped that something like that could happen, but we had all sort of given up hope through all the ups and downs of the situation.”

The fundraising goal of $200,000, along with O’Malley’s budgeted $300,000, would ensure that the baseball program would be self-sufficient after 2015. The program would be the only one at Towson that would have to be self-sufficient.

“Once he got involved, the fundraising erupted and people started to come forward left and right. He really brought it to attention, not only in the Baltimore area but really across the state,” Fratantuono said.

While baseball was given the task of raising money, other programs would receive the money originally intended to be spent on baseball.

“The baseball boosters again have to raise $100,000 this year for next year, $100,000 the year after that,” Loeschke said in an interview on April 2 with WBAL-TV. “Some of the money we would have spent on baseball then can be reallocated. Those pieces have to all come together and a few other pieces have to come together in order for this to really work for us.”

— — —

For most Division I universities, intercollegiate athletics are a money-losing proposition. Even after ticket sales and private donations from boosters, universities try to reduce athletic deficits by relying on subsidies in the form of student athletic fees and school or state support.

Despite a reported $450,000 surplus in 2010, Towson’s Department of Athletics has been operating at a $1.3 million deficit since 2013, higher than the anticipated debt of $850,000, according to the “Analysis of the FY2014 Maryland Executive Budget, 2013” compiled by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services.

In 2012, just 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money on their own to cover their expenses, according to a database of college athletics’ finances released by the USA Today.

The database showed that Towson’s athletics department’s total expenses ($25 million) exceeded its total revenue ($22.8 million) by roughly $2.2 million. In addition, Towson received $18.7 million of its total revenue in subsidies, the 15th highest percentage of all 228 Division I public schools.

Howard Nixon, a former Towson sociology professor and author of “The Athletic Trap,” said that the athletics department faces an uphill battle of being profitable in the future.

“Towson is in an arms race, which involves escalating costs to be competitive,” said Nixon, who taught Sociology of Sport before retiring from Towson in 2013.  “The problem is that, like the University in general, it does not have a huge store of endowment funds, a stable of big donors, or big media or corporate contracts to pump up revenue. If you consider that 80-85 percent of Towson athletics is funded by the mandatory student fee, it will be difficult for Towson to reign supreme in athletics as long as it tries to compete at a high level in football and other top-tier sports.”

Towson also has the highest charge for intercollegiate athletics in the University System of Maryland. Towson’s athletics department receives $798 from the annual tuition cost for a full-time undergraduate student, according to the University’s report on intercollegiate athletics produced in 2013.

“In fall 2013, undergrad enrollment was 18,779,” Nixon said, “and if we assume it is about the same in the second semester, we can estimate that the University collected over $15 million in student athletic fees. Thus, a conservative estimate is that at least 71 percent of the athletics budget is currently from student fees.”

Even with the recent success of both the football and men’s basketball teams, Nixon said that it’s come at a price.

“To keep our football coach after recent accomplishments, we have given him two contract extensions and big raises over the past few years,” Nixon said. “The same could happen in basketball if Towson gets into the NCAA Tournament, as expected. Having lots of assistant coaches and auxiliary athletics personnel, adding directors of operations for the top sports, paying the maintenance costs for facilities, and trying to have the latest equipment for teams and athletes all inflate the athletics budget.”

Dominic Fratantuono and Hunter Bennett

Towson Tigers outfielder Dominic Fratantuono, left, and shortstop Hunter Bennett cross their arms as they discuss the fate of the University’s baseball program.

— — —

Fast-forward six months to Oct. 26. The program was in the midst of fundraising and celebrating what turned out to be the most successful season in program history. Despite the back-and-forth uncertainty of the future of the program, Fratantuono and Bennett helped lead their team to the Colonial Athletic Association Championship and a win over Florida Atlantic in the NCAA Tournament in May.

Fratantuono hit .600 with one home run, six runs scored and seven runs batted in during the championship run, and Bennett led the top fielding defense in the CAA, along with leading the nation in double-plays with second baseman Pat Fitzgerald.

The team had just hosted its annual Alumni Game the previous day. Alumni were invited to come back to John B. Schuerholz Park to play against the current players on the roster.

The following day, the team began to prepare for its celebratory bull roast that was being held later that night in the Chesapeake room in the University Union. The bull roast was not just a celebration, but just one of the many ways the program was trying to accomplish its fundraising goal.

“After [the Alumni game] we had a bull roast that had silent auctions and things like that to raise money and ticket sales,” Fratantuono said. “A lot of the alumni attended and even the President [Loeschke] came.”

Aside from the silent auctions, the program also hosted raffles for merchandise and autographs. Tickets to attend were also $50.

“The bull roast was extremely helpful in bringing in some money and getting our cause out there to more people,” Bennett said.

After the fundraising and feast, Fratantuono, Bennett and the rest of the players and coaches from the 2013 team were awarded their CAA Championship rings.

The face of the ring has a baseball diamond with the Towson Tiger mascot in the center, player names and numbers on one side and “CAA Champions” around the face of the ring. Diamonds are also scattered across the rings.

“It was amazing,” Fratantuono said of the ring ceremony. “They were talking about the season in review and it was just amazing to hear everything that we went through. It couldn’t have been more satisfying to get that ring on my finger.”

“The parents, coaches and our supporters did a lot of things behind the scenes to help make that happen for us,” Bennett continued.

— — —

Loeschke announced on March 8 that the University intended to cut baseball and men’s soccer from its athletic program to deal with the budgetary deficits and Title IX issues.

After facing backlash from supporters of the teams, the baseball program earned a reprieve when state leaders reached a compromise with O’Malley on April 1 to allow the program to continue through the 2015 season. One week later, the General Assembly approved the deal, granting Towson $300,000 to save it baseball team as long as private fundraising reached at least $100,000 per year over the next two years.

Although Director of Athletics Tim Leonard announced on Dec. 18 that Towson raised the necessary $200,000 to qualify for matching funds from the state to ensure the baseball program’s short-term survival, the fate of the program still remains uncertain beyond the 2015 campaign.

“It is difficult to predict,” Nixon said, “but it is unlikely that the University or athletics [department] will work as hard to raise money for baseball as it does for the high-profile sports of football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse and women’s lacrosse.”

Nixon compared the baseball program’s current situation to a similar one that took place at the University of Maryland in 2012, when Maryland’s Athletic Director Kevin Anderson eliminated seven of the school’s 27 athletic programs after all seven programs failed to raise the necessary funding for survival.

“You might ask whether other non-revenue sports, like baseball, have the same stipulation that they raise money to fund themselves,” Nixon said. “Maryland did the same thing after it cut a number of sports a few years ago, and provisionally restored a couple contingent on their fundraising success.”

However, Nixon acknowledged the overwhelming support of Towson’s baseball program.

“Baseball seems to have some very dedicated supporters in the baseball community in Maryland, especially among baseball parents and alumni,” Nixon said.

Still, Nixon said, he believes the baseball program will get lost in the shuffle when it comes to garnering enough financial support from the athletics department to remain self-sufficient.

“One last athletic fundraising concern I would add is about the special fundraising of about $150,000 that was used to help offset the travel costs during football’s pursuit of a national championship,” he said. “Think of how the University might have used that $150,000 to help fund other sports, like baseball. As I said, it is all about the money for the biggest sports of football and men’s basketball.”

— — —

 Two months after hosting the bull roast, Fratantuono and Bennett were finishing their final exams for their last fall semester at Towson University.

The team had gone through months of fundraising, including attending numerous Baltimore Ravens games at M&T Bank Stadium and collecting donations from donors to go along with the bull roast.

Leonard had just announced that the program had reached its fundraising goal of $200,000 to spend over the next two years.

While the team was saved for the next two seasons, Leonard said his long-term plan for the athletics department included baseball.

“It was a huge relief. It just goes to show how much support we have behind us,” Fratantuono said.

Bennett, who had seriously doubted his playing career before the fundraising proposition came into play, said he knew all along that he would be playing his final season at Towson after their fundraising goal was presented.

“I had faith in all the people who had supported us, along with the new athletic director, that they’d help us to meet the goal,” he said. “After we did and our future was secure, there wasn’t a better feeling in the world.”

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