During an eight-year run at the Towson Center, the East Coast Conference basketball tournament has evolved from a minor event important only to the principals into a full-scale happening complete with league-record crowds and national cable television for the championship game.
Nearly 9,000 attended the three sessions last March, with 4,435 cramming the arena for Towson State's title clinching.
"The first year, we had a big snowstorm and lost money," recalled Towson athletic director Bill Hunter. "But that was prior to sponsorship and television.
"We've gone from that to where the basketball tournament really pays the expenses of all the other ECC championships. It has been a godsend the last two or three years."
But, just as it has established a firm foundation, the tournament is threatened with extinction because the conference is threatened with extinction.
When the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Hofstra tip off at 2 p.m. today, they may be launching the final ECC tournament. Delaware meets Central Connecticut State and Rider faces Drexel to conclude today's program.
Towson State (17-10), which won the regular-season title with a 10-2 record, drew a bye and plays the UMBC-Hofstra winner tomorrow at 1 p.m.
With Delaware and Drexel committed to join the North Atlantic Conference next season, the future of the ECC may revolve around Towson, which also has applied to that New England-based league.
North Atlantic officials will visit the Towson campus this month, but have made no guarantees to the school.
The ECC is in danger of losing its automatic bid to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament because of the defections of Delaware and Drexel, which will leave it with only five members, one short of qualification.
Longtime ECC members Hofstra and Rider have made overtures to the Northeast Conference as the schools scramble to "be prepared," said ECC commissioner John Carpenter. "I think everybody is trying to do what is best for themselves."
But there are countermoves afoot to try to salvage the ECC, and the issues will be discussed seriously Monday when the conference presidents and athletic directors meet during the tournament.
"We'll know a lot more after that," said Carpenter. "We're working on trying to keep it together. We need one school that has been in Division I eight years, and we're talking to several."
UMBC athletic director Charles Brown said: "In spite of all the problems, there are still schools that want in. Strong consideration will be given to them so that at least the conference is functioning next year."
They include Brooklyn College and the University of Buffalo, two "large institutions with a lot of potential," Brown said.
If Towson, Hofstra or Rider leaves the league, the ECC would have to wait five years to regain the automatic bid, according to new NCAA rules. If not and the league adds a team, it would lose the bid for only one year.
Brown said UMBC has indicated its wish to play host to the tournament next season.
"If everybody remains where they are, the tournament still wouldn't mean anything without the qualifier," said Hunter.