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Keeping the Lights On

June 12, 2013
by Laith Agha
Baseball players watching the field

Cal baseball’s future is brighter but still punctuated with a question mark.

Fans who attended the Cal baseball game against USC on March 28 did something that no one had ever done before in the team’s 121-year history: They walked into a ballpark illuminated by artificial light to watch the Bears play a home game at night.

The 2013 season was already 25 games old (nearly half over), but the baseball program couldn’t wait another day—or night, as it were—to flip the switch. No matter that the eight 90-foot-tall light posts were still weeks away from being permanently wired to the grid. Diesel generators rumbled away as evening settled and the first pitch was thrown. Eight of the game’s nine innings were played after the 7:28 p.m. sunset.

In the end, Cal lost to the Trojans, 4–3, but the night was a success by most other measures. Attendance exceeded 2,100—four times the typical turnout for a midweek game at Evans Diamond. And the newly opened beer garden, a field-level corral in foul territory down the left-field line, was packed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with students, fans, and faculty. More than anything, the lights, the beer garden, and the packed bleachers were all signs of a remarkable reversal of fortune for a Cal baseball program that, two years earlier, had very nearly been dropped forever from the University’s lineup of varsity sports.

The news had come on September 28, 2010: Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced that Berkeley would eliminate baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics, and women’s lacrosse, and would downgrade rugby—historically, Cal’s most dominant squad—to club status. The cuts, which would save a projected $4 million annually, were partly in response to the athletics department’s $13.7 million budgetary shortfall of the preceding fiscal year. The decision also came in the wake of a 2009 vote by the Academic Senate to end all subsidies for Cal Athletics and make the intercollegiate athletics program self-supporting. The resolution was nonbinding, but the message was plain: Something had to be done to keep Athletics living within its means.

Response to the cuts was immediate. Fans, players, and coaches—including those at competing schools—denounced the decision. Supporters of the affected teams rallied to raise funds to restore the programs. Originally, administrators had insisted that no team would be brought back unless enough money was raised to save all five. The University first put the figure for reinstatement at $80 million, then later dropped it to $25 million. In the end, each sport was required to raise enough to survive another seven to ten years.

Cal rugby, women’s gymnastics, and women’s lacrosse were granted early reprieves in February 2011, after raising some $12 million, most of it from rugby donors. That left men’s gymnastics (one of only 19 NCAA teams remaining in the country) and baseball still facing what looked like certain elimination. At that point, baseball had only raised about $2.5 million in pledges, of which only about a million materialized—not enough to keep the team afloat for even a year.

Enter Stu Gordon ’62, cofounder of the San Francisco law firm Gordon and Rees; Gordon had pitched for Cal a half-century earlier. As the time remaining to save baseball dwindled, Gordon was called in to lead a last-ditch fundraising effort. He met with the chancellor on February 22, 2011, to find out what had to happen for baseball to be spared. “[Birgeneau] said I’d have to raise $10 million,” he recalled.

Gordon had raised money before, but “never with so many zeroes.” (In fact, he’d been involved in the campaign to raise $1.5 million for the baseball team’s training facility, completed in 2006.) To complicate matters, Birgeneau informed Gordon he had only until the end of March to meet the goal—just five weeks.

Fortunately, there was already an organization in place to save the team. The Cal Baseball Foundation had formed in September 2010, and Gordon could tap into that network. Doug Nickle ’98, a former Cal player at the forefront of the rescue effort, likened Gordon to a closer in a baseball contest: “An integral part of the team who was to come in at the end and seal the deal.” Of course, a closing pitcher is playing defense, protecting a lead. Gordon was more like a designated hitter. He had to mount some offense.

To get the ball in play, he put up $550,000 of his own money. That was quickly followed by a pair of million-dollar donations, one from Cal superdonor Douglas Goldman ’74. Another unnamed donor pitched in a half-million dollars. Six more donors offered $200,000 to $250,000 each. Gordon reports that when one million-dollar donation was taken off the table, other major donors upped their contributions by 10 percent to make up the difference. And so it went.

Working 10 to 12 hours a day to secure the rest of the money, Gordon filled his days with meetings and phone calls to potential donors. “I kept following up with people until I got the maximum contribution I thought I could get,” he said. “I just couldn’t possibly imagine that we wouldn’t have a baseball team at Cal.” Within a month, another $5 million was pledged among 1,100 donors—including former Cal standouts such as five-time Major League all-star Jeff Kent ’90, who pitched in $100,000.

The University granted provisional reinstatement to the baseball program in April 2011, when the fundraising figure stood at more than $9 million, and the decision was made final two months later. Cal baseball had been saved, at least for the time being.

According to the terms of the reinstatement, the team would have to be self-sustaining in the future. With an annual baseball budget of roughly $1.4 million, the $10 million in donations, now managed by the University as a “term endowment,” would barely keep baseball afloat for a decade. In two seasons, the figure has already dipped to a little more than $8 million.

Now the Cal Baseball Foundation is looking to create a permanent endowment, a pot of money large enough that its annual returns on investment will be enough to fund the team in perpetuity. The target is $20 million, Gordon says. At a 5 percent annual return, a $20 million endowment would generate $1 million a year. Combine that with game-day revenues and the usual and customary fundraising, and Cal baseball is expected to have a sound, sustainable, long-term business plan.

And while Gordon worries about so-called “donor fatigue,” for now the checks are still coming in. The lights and a new video scoreboard, installed later in the season, were both paid for with $2.25 million raised in a separate campaign.

Remarkably, the uncertainty surrounding Cal baseball’s future never interrupted play on the field. In fact, the threat of elimination appeared to inspire the 2011 squad, as the Golden Bears went on an improbable ride that led to the school’s first appearance in the College World Series—baseball’s equivalent of March Madness—in 19 years. Cal lost in the second round, but it had been a Cinderella season for the Bears, one that garnered national media attention.

That’s not to say there haven’t been repercussions. “We stopped recruiting for nine months,” said head coach David Esquer. That prevented him and the rest of his coaching staff from bringing in the typical crop of talented freshmen for the 2012 season. For that first night game against USC, Esquer started four freshmen and one sophomore—a ratio that would typically have been reversed if the roster were carrying the usual stock of sophomores.

But that is a short-term problem. As promises of much-needed upgrades come to fruition, recruiting can only improve. Ultimately, the new lights and scoreboard are part of what baseball boosters hope will become a virtuous circle: By making the venue more attractive to recruits, the team will be able to draw better players, which will mean more wins, which will draw bigger crowds, which translates to sales of more tickets, hot dogs, and beers, which is all money in the bank—or at least money to run the program.

The facilities upgrades were also considered necessary if Cal baseball hoped to take part in two moneymaking ventures that had previously been out of reach: hosting postseason tournaments, and having home games broadcast on television. The recently launched Pac-12 Network makes regular broadcasts a real possibility. It should be noted, however, that revenue from the TV deal goes to Pac-12 athletics departments, not directly to the teams.

So, with the lights up and running, how bright is Cal baseball’s future?

In the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences, at schools such as Louisiana State University, University of Georgia, and Clemson University, baseball crowds average well into the thousands. LSU draws the most, with more than 10,000 a game, while three other southern teams average more than 7,000.

Attracting comparable crowds to Evans Diamond isn’t realistic. Even putting aside the fact that there simply aren’t enough seats—capacity is 2,500—college sports fandom is just not as culturally ingrained in the Bay Area as it is in the South. And with two Major League franchises playing ball in the Bay Area—the World Champion San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s—Cal is hardly the only game in town.

That said, a quick assessment of teams closer to home suggests that Cal should at least be able to triple its attendance. Cal’s fiercest rival, Stanford, for example, averages nearly 1,700 fans for home games at Sunken Diamond. Oregon State tops the Pac-12 conference with 2,200 per game. And Fresno State, which is in the Mountain West Conference, boasts Northern California’s best draw, with a season average of almost 1,700 turning out to watch the Bulldogs. Those crowds are attributed to various factors, with stadium lighting ranked near the top. All three of these schools also have perennially competitive squads, each having reached the College World Series multiple times in the last decade. Oregon State won two national titles, and Fresno State grabbed one.

Night games alone won’t guarantee bigger crowds, however. Nor will nationally ranked teams. Marketing is crucial as well: Most Berkeley students, let alone most Bay Area baseball fans, would be hard pressed to even find Evans Diamond, and fewer still are aware of the team’s past accomplishments: Cal won the first-ever College World Series in 1947, and again in 1957, and made it to the tournament four other times. Ten former Cal players were on Major League rosters last year.

That the University even considered cutting such a storied program, competing in what is arguably baseball’s most competitive conference, sent shockwaves through the college ranks. “It’s an awful message for college baseball,” said Coach Esquer. “It’s an awful message for our conference, and it’s an awful message for any school playing in a conference that’s not as prestigious as the Pac-12.” The fear is that if “it can happen to a Pac-12 school, it can happen to any school in any conference in America.”

And here’s a question that might make coaches uncomfortable. If Cal baseball’s recovery plan works, as it appears to be doing, will its example put pressure on other teams to sink or swim financially? Aside from football and men’s basketball, most college athletic teams run at a loss, after all. Why not require every team at Cal to be self-supporting?

Cal athletics director Sandy Barbour stopped short of saying the University would make the rest of its 29 intercollegiate programs switch to the private funding model anytime soon, but she did stress that “institutional funding is not going to grow by leaps and bounds. The direction we’re heading in is to ask more programs to be self-sustaining and/or asking them all to be better sustaining.”

“The message is loud and clear to all our programs,” said Barbour. “For us to thrive, we need private support.”

According to Clemson sports economist Raymond Sauer, the University is merely following a trend. Whatever Cal’s reasons for cutting baseball, he said, the decision forced alumni to reevaluate their support of the program and adopt a more modern financial model. “That flipped the mode to what is pretty commonplace in the Southeast now: supporting a lot of the [sports programs] with external funds.”

John Hughes ’78, a Cal baseball booster and former player, echoed the sentiment. “People stepped up to the plate and have saved the program—and put it in a better place than it’s ever been.”

That may be, but plenty remains to be done to ensure Cal baseball’s long-term success. Attendance for the second of the March three-game set against the Trojans—a Friday-night contest, also under the lights—dropped to nearly 1,000. The final matchup on Saturday afternoon drew a little more than 500—close to the average crowd from the pre-lights era. Cal dropped the first two games, but fans who turned out for the Saturday contest saw the Bears trounce the Trojans, 15–5. Perhaps in due time victories like that will routinely be witnessed by capacity crowds.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Hughes said.

For his part, Stu Gordon isn’t worried. “The revenues will start increasing once everybody gets used to going to night games and enjoying beer gardens.”

As they used to say at the Bear’s Lair Pub: Go Beers!

Laith Agha, M.J. ’12, is a former staff writer for the Monterey County Herald and now serves as managing editor of the A’s and Giants magazines.

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