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

retiree.

They keep coming back to Fifth Third Field – in record

numbers.

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

1977-95.

”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

free.

”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

slips.

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

family members.”

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

Atlanta.

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

over months.

”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

challenge.”

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

said.