Dragons Remain a Home Run With Fans

 Dragons Remain a Home Run With Fans

The Dayton Dragons sold-out streak is one of the great stories in national sports.

Mike Boyer

When the Dayton Dragons open their home season on April 12 against the South Bend Silver Hawks, Fifth Third Field will be sold out, as it has always been for 15 seasons stretching back to 2000 when the team arrived.

They are one of the great stories in professional sports. The Class A League Dragons, the city’s first minor league team in nearly 50 years, have sold out 1,051 consecutive games, blowing past the previous professional sports sell-out streak in 2011 of 815 games set by the NBA Portland Trail Blazers, and they haven’t looked back.

The team’s success with Dayton fans has taken on a life of its own. So much so Robert Murphy, Dragons president from the beginning, can’t envision Fifth Third Field without a sellout.

“When the stadium is full and there are different people here every night, it makes the experience that much better. The mascots are funnier, the soda is colder and the hot dogs taste better. The sellouts keep the experience at the ballpark fresh with new fans nightly.”

That wasn’t always the case. When then-owner Mandalay Sports Entertainment agreed to move the Rockford, Ill., franchise to Dayton, there were plenty of naysayers.

City officials saw the Dragons and the new 7,200-seat stadium in the heart of downtown as a spark for downtown revitalization. Initial projections were the team could draw about 3,400 fans a night, less than half capacity, but still plenty for a struggling urban core.

Murphy, a Buffalo native, who previously ran the business operations for Las Vegas minor league baseball and hockey franchises, recalls: “We knew this would be a great community for us to bring baseball to. But what everybody forgets was that 50 percent of the people here thought it was a really bad idea.”

Murphy and his management team, including executive vice president Eric Deutsch, began a grassroots marketing campaign, selling the Dragons at countless Rotary, Kiwanis and chamber meetings in the Miami Valley.

After making his baseball pitch, Murphy says he’d ask for questions, and they’d start:

“‘What makes you think anybody is going to come downtown, when people haven’t been downtown in 20 years? If we want to watch real baseball, we’ll go down to the Cincinnati Reds. Do you realize not one minor league sports team has survived in Dayton? How are you going to keep everybody safe when there’s no parking around the stadium?’ Everybody wasn’t jumping on this bandwagon,” he says.

The concerns couldn’t be ignored, and the city, county and other groups worked to make the team a success.

“It really came down to execution,” he says. “From game one we told people this is what it was going to be, and they became believers.”

An important factor was that the ownership group wanted Dayton to be the prototype for what eventually grew to half a dozen minor league franchises.

“They wanted this to be first class,” says Murphy. “It’s minor league baseball, but they wanted it to be a major league experience.”

It’s reflected in the fact that not all the space in the stadium is filled with advertising signs. “That’s a point of differentiation. Less is more. It’s a more powerful marketing opportunity for our advertisers,” he says.

And it’s also reflected in how fans are treated. “When we produce a giveaway item, we’re not putting sponsor logos on it. We want it to be as nice a gift as if you went into our store and bought it,” Murphy says.

Season ticket holders are reserved promotional items even if they aren’t at the game. Even things like season ticket invoices are designed like collectibles.

This will be the first full season for the new Dragons ownership, Palisades Arcadia Baseball, which acquired the team in August, promising not to mess with success.

But the new owners are investing in the team. Most visible is the new $1 million-plus high-definition video board, one of the most high-tech in minor league baseball, and, at 35 feet high and 65 feet wide, the largest in Class A.

Other features for fans include a new craft beer area offering 10 or more craft brews.

There is a new character joining mascots Heater and Gem and Roofman, the superhero who turns balls hit on the roof into softballs for fans. Sunny is the new Dragon’s Princess who will meet and greet fans in her carriage on the ball field plaza and take photos.

The team will also introduce barbecue smoked on site at the ballpark.

At the same time, the team is continuing to refurbish all 29 suites in the ballpark with new cabinets, flooring, paint, refrigerators and restrooms. At the end of the season the lobby and hallways outside also will be redone.

The team is expanding its elementary student MVP program from Montgomery, Greene and Clark counties to include Warren and Miami counties, encompassing more than 1,100 fourth and fifth grade classrooms. The program allows individual teachers to reward five students they deem worthy with game tickets and other activities.

With the string of sellouts, Murphy says he’s never wished the ballpark were bigger.

“We don’t want to oversell the ballpark. It ruins the experience for everyone. People wait longer for beer or soda or a sandwich or a restroom. We don’t want people spending their time in lines,” he says. “There are advantages to being small. The baseball is up close and it helps the customer experience as well.”

Murphy doesn’t want to look too far ahead, but he says the milestone the team is next aiming for is 1,500 consecutive sellouts. That would take the sell-out streak into the 2021 season.

“The community has done an amazing job supporting the sellout streak and I imagine they’ll continue it,” he says. “It’s become a source of pride and we want to keep it going.”