Class A Dayton packs ’em in at record rate
Don Campbell has attended 600 Dayton Dragons games, cheering on
the Class A team from a front-row seat next to the home dugout. He
knows what to expect.
Friendly ushers and ballpark staff. Amusing fan contests during
the 90 seconds between innings. A chance to see some of the
Cincinnati Reds’ up-and-coming players learn their craft.
Then, after the last out, he’ll encounter the team’s executives
waiting at the gate.
”When you leave the game, they’re out there greeting people and
thanking you for coming,” said Campbell, a 62-year-old
They keep coming back to Fifth Third Field – in record
The Dragons will sell out their 815th consecutive home game on
Saturday, setting a record for a professional team in North
America, according to the team’s research. With their 7,230 seats
filled and hundreds more fans reclining on a grassy hill beyond the
outfield wall, they’ll pass the Portland Trail Blazers’ mark from
”I know it will be a source of pride,” team President Robert
Murphy said. ”It’s no secret that things in and around the Dayton
region have been difficult the last couple of years. It’s also a
city of perseverance. People love this community. This is something
they’re proud of.”
It wasn’t always that way. The southwest Ohio city had mixed
feelings about building a ballpark in a run-down area downtown.
Only 57 miles from the Reds’ ballpark, there were questions about
how a team would fare.
It’s turned into an unprecedented success, built on an
old-fashioned business model that works very well for the Dragons:
Being passionate about people.
Since sharing a cab ride to scout out the downtown site in 1998,
Murphy and Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch have banked on fan
friendliness, employee loyalty and marketing creativity. The
formula works – Dayton led not only all Class A leagues in
attendance last season, but all of Double-A as well.
They do it by making fans feel they’re the stars.
The club puts a lot of money and effort into keeping fans happy
– what businesses refer to as customer service. Season tickets
arrived in team collectibles. Ticket holders get red-carpet
treatment. The ballpark staff makes sure fans feel appreciated.
Need anything? Just ask.
The Dragons don’t mind spending money to show their
appreciation. When the Quad Cities River Bandits’ ballpark in Iowa
got flooded in 2001 and 2004, the Dragons paid them to move their
four-game series to Dayton. Then, they let their fans in for
”Instead of charging fans for it – you figure four new games
with a full house is a pretty good chunk of revenue – we gave them
to our season ticket holders as a thank you,” Deutsch said. ”We
did that twice and it was received very, very well.”
Ticket prices range from $9.75 to $13.75. There are three season
ticket packages – 17 games, 35 games, 70 games. The cheapest
package is $331.50 for two tickets to each of 17 games. The most
expensive is $3,850 for four top-priced seats at every game.
The Dragons sold 5,700 season ticket packages for this season,
involving 16,000 fans. The 17-game package is the most popular.
Roughly 94 percent of their season ticket holders renew each year,
so there’s a waiting list.
The Dragons also hold family picnics and other events for
employees, emphasizing their importance. There’s a front office
staff of 34 and a pool of 250 game-day employees – 110 needed per
game. Roughly 90 percent have been with the Dragons since their
inaugural season in 2000.
Once they fill the ballpark, they do their best to entertain.
The Dragons fill the 90-second gaps between half-innings with
competitions – marshmallow tossing, toddler racing. Every
presentation is rehearsed pregame to make sure there are no
The club has a ”Home Run For Life” program that honors
children persevering through medical problems. At a game last week
against the Lansing Lugnuts, 7-year-old Garrett LeMaster – a
diabetic – ran the bases after the third inning, slapping hands
with players lined up along the foul lines as he went.
It’s not a typical minor league environment.
”It’s just fun,” said Cleveland Indians outfielder Austin
Kearns, a former Red who was on the inaugural Dayton team in 2000.
”There’s stuff going on. There’s not a bad seat in the house.
”That place is awesome. That atmosphere in A-ball is something
you don’t find anywhere. It’s close to (the majors). It’s pretty
awesome for 18-, 19-year-old kids to get a chance to play in front
of that crowd. We had played the season before in Rockford, and
you’d have 50 people in the stands and 20 of them were probably
One of the Dragons’ biggest challenges was maintaining the
streak when the economy tanked. Dayton lost thousands of
auto-related jobs, and NCR Corp. – one of its icons for 125 years –
announced in 2009 that it was moving its headquarters to
While other companies cut back to cope with the downturn, the
Dragons took a different approach.
”Just because times get tough, we’re not going to skimp on what
we’re doing or how we’re doing it,” Murphy said.
The Dragons worked with season ticket holders who were feeling
the crunch. In 2008, they started offering payment plans spread out
”They said that was great, it really helped,” Deutsch said.
”And we had our highest renewal rate ever.”
The Dragons pack them in without big-name players or much
success on the field. They’ve had losing records in seven of the
last eight seasons.
Despite the limitations, the streak went on, closing in on an
NBA team’s mark.
”We don’t have Michael Jordan,” Murphy said. ”We don’t have
visiting teams like the Yankees or the Lakers. We haven’t sniffed
winning in any significant way. Given what we control and the
length of time (for the streak), that in and of itself is a
It’s likely to go on for some time. Fans like 64-year-old Marty
Orr have taken the streak to heart.
”This is the best thing that ever came to Dayton,” Orr