The Dayton Dragons
played their first home game in franchise history on April 28, 2000, with a sellout crowd filing into brand-new Fifth Third Field
to witness the occasion.
The packed house wasn't just an Opening Day anomaly, it was a sign of things to come. The Dragons have gone on to sell out every single game they've played since, 814 in all, drawing close to 600,000 fans each season. Once tomorrow's game against South Bend becomes official, they will overtake the 1977-95 Portland Trail Blazers and find themselves at the top of a very prestigious list: most consecutive sellouts in professional sports history.
The impending milestone has resulted in a deluge of media attention for the Dragons, with nearly everyone asking the same question: How did this come to be?
A simple formula
The Dragons moved to Dayton from Rockford, Ill., where they had alternately been known as the Expos, Royals, Cubbies and Reds. The team was purchased by Mandalay Baseball Properties in 1999, with the intent of moving to a brand-new facility in Dayton. Fifth Third Field, as it came to be known, was funded jointly by Mandalay, the city of Dayton, and naming-rights partner Fifth Third Bank. Like many so-called "Rust Belt" cities -- Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Fort Wayne come to mind -- the ballpark was built in a downtown location as a means to revitalize and recontextualize an area decimated by the exodus of once-prevalent manufacturing jobs.
Team president Robert Murphy has been with the Dragons throughout their existence, assuming his position in February of 1999 after he and vice president Eric Deutsch relocated from Las Vegas (where they had been employed by the Mandalay-owned Las Vegas 51s). As such, he played a crucial role in establishing the team's identity.
"As soon as we got on the ground and began working with community leaders, we started to see signs that Dayton was going to be an exciting place for Minor League Baseball," said Murphy. "The city and surrounding region are filled with great sports fans, who really embrace their teams. It's amazing how many people here are so attached to their memories of the Reds, whether it's Dad taking them to a game at Crosley Field or going to Riverfront Stadium and seeing the Big Red Machine. They just really love the sport of baseball."
Murphy also gives plentiful credit to Mandalay Baseball Properties, whose roster of teams also includes the Oklahoma City RedHawks, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Erie SeaWolves, Frisco RoughRiders and Staten Island Yankees.
"They wanted this to be a first-class organization from the start and provided us with great resources," he recalled. "They've given us everything we've asked for, never once saying 'no.' This vision in how the organization is run and the way they treat their employees has led to an area in which we've been lucky and blessed: many of our senior leaders have been here since Day One."
And from the start, this consistent cadre of leaders has sworn to a simple but effective business strategy in which the following five elements are emphasized: affordable product, family entertainment, community relationships, customer service and corporate sponsorships.
It's a model familiar to anyone who has worked in Minor League Baseball, but no team has been able to apply it more effectively than the Dragons. Approximately 6,200 of Fifth Third Field's 7200 theater-style seats are sold in advance through a multitude of season-ticket plans ("We're real big on mini-plans and 17-game plans, making sure we can offer packages that match our fans' budgets and the time they have available to go to games," explained Murphy.) The remaining 1,000 seats for each game are sold by the group sales department, and between 1,000 and 1,200 overflow lawn seating tickets are sold for each game as well. On any given night, Fifth Third Field is filled to approximately 115 percent capacity.
This enviable situation appears likely to continue for quite some time. Murphy estimates that between 93 percent and 95 percent of season ticket packages are renewed, and those that aren't are quickly snapped up by fans on the waiting list.
"One of the benefits of season tickets is that most of our tickets are sold before the season begins. [Sales] are not dependent on the team's performance or the weather," said Murphy.
This point was driven home in a tragicomic fashion last season, as the last-place Dragons went a horrific 53-85. The lowlight of the season was a 24-game home losing streak, one that stretched from June through August, but this epic string of ineptitude had no bearing on the bottom line.
"What we can control is the physical environment, customer service, food and beverage, and the entertainment," said Murphy.
The streak has also been able to survive despite the down economy, a foe that could be seen as far more formidable than a losing product on the field.
"As long as folks feel there is great value in what we provide, and that it matches their disposable income, then there's a fit for what we are doing even when there's a slide toward a bad economy," said Murphy. "The question becomes, 'How can we make it easy to continue this love affair?' We constructed some really nice payment plans, making sure that nothing came due during the holiday season, and ended up having our absolute highest renewal rates. ... People really appreciate it when you're willing to work with them."
Keep on keepin' on
Dayton's success is in some ways the result of a perfect storm, the combination of an ideal ballpark, fan base, affiliation and front office. But the national media attention that has resulted from the streak provides an opportunity to highlight the excellent value provided by Minor League Baseball teams nationwide.
"When you talk about Minor League Baseball playing a role in urban renewal, Dayton comes to mind pretty quickly," said Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner, also citing recent successes such as the Durham Bulls and Oklahoma City RedHawks. "[The streak] has provided us with a platform in which to spread the gospel and share the good news. ... It's nothing but a positive for the club, the city and all of Minor League Baseball."
The Dragons plan to acknowledge their sellout record on Saturday as soon as the game becomes official (weather-permitting, of course). A larger-scale celebration is planned for July 23, one that Murphy says will "bring the community together, recognizing key groups that have contributed to us being successful."
But the primary focus, as always, is to keep the streak going.
"When we started here, we set a goal of 500 straight sellouts," said Murphy. "And even before we hit 500, the goal became setting a new record of 815. Now when I'm asked what our goals are, I just say that we'll stay on the path we've been on and continue to sell this place out. It's hard to imagine the Dayton Dragons not being a sellout experience."