At first glance, it does not make the least bit of sense.
The Dayton Dragons have sold out Fifth Third Field for every game since they began play there in 2000.
With 70 home games a year, the Dragons suffer all the same vagaries of weather and less attractive Tuesday night dates as any other baseball team playing outdoors. Their first 11 seasons included only four winning campaigns and just one in the last eight years.
Yet in this tightly knit southwestern Ohio region of about 1 million people, the Dragons have sold out all 805 games thus far at their Fifth Third Field since beginning play in 2000 in downtown Dayton. If rain holds off over the next few weeks, the Dragons will surpass the Portland Trail Blazers’ 16-year-old record of 814 straight home sellouts on July 9.
Then they’ll throw a large-scale gala at the ballpark July 23 involving, among many others, minority team owners Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin and a large collection of government and industry officials. The event, in many ways, will celebrate the special, historic and unusually deep bond between the Dragons, owner Mandalay Baseball Properties and the Dayton region.
Sellout after sellout after sellout …
The longest sellout streaks by number of games (including postseason)
in each major league:
|NBA||814||Portland Trail Blazers||1977-95|
|MLB||663||Boston Red Sox||2003-current|
|Other current streaks of note:|
|NHL||360||Vancouver Canucks||Nov. 2002|
|NBA||356||Dallas Mavericks||Dec. 2001|
Note: Through June 10.
Source: SBJ research
“You have stability of their affiliation [with the nearby Cincinnati Reds] that stands out. You have a strong level of commitment from the city and region’s public sector. You can’t overlook the high quality of that management team and ownership. The facility and game-day experience are first class in every way, and tickets remain affordable. And they’ve fought hard against contentment and complacency.”
Mandalay’s involvement in Dayton baseball began in early 1999 with a rather audacious idea: What if every game sold out, not only in year one, as expected, but in every subsequent season?
Such was the question and challenge that Jon Spoelstra, then Mandalay’s managing director of professional sports properties, posed to his colleagues. And since the Dragons would be relocating from Rockford, Ill., with no history in Dayton, Mandalay felt it had a clean slate with which to work.
“This was one we could really start from scratch, a total blank canvas,” said Howard Nuchow, another former Mandalay executive, now with CAA Sports, who was crucial to the early success of the Dragons. “The idea was to have this be sort of the distillation of all our best practices and ideas. As crazy as it is to think about it, what’s happening now was pretty much imagined right from the start.”
Not that there wasn’t already some affinity for Dayton among the ownership group. Hank Stickney, then Mandalay Baseball’s chief executive, went to Ohio State and served briefly at nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
But, even so, as Mandalay’s team began to lay the groundwork for its arrival in Dayton, resistance from the town was initially severe. Most pointedly, anger and questions surrounded the group’s plan to build a new ballpark on the eastern edge of downtown.
No one from the suburbs went down there anymore, the critics claimed. A series of one-way streets surrounding the planned ballpark site were going to snarl traffic, others said. Still more locked in on the lack of adjacent parking, even though thousands of spaces were within a short walk.
“It was hard at first for people to visualize what this was going to be,” said Mike Turner, former Dayton mayor and now a Republican U.S. congressman representing the Dayton area. “We didn’t have anything like this. We just didn’t have a point of reference.”
Fifth Third Field, buttressed by a 20-year naming-rights deal with the Cincinnati-based bank reportedly worth more than $4.3 million, opened in April 2000 amid a frenetic construction schedule still unfinished when play began. Like many opening days in a new town, that first game was a sellout, full of pomp and circumstance, including an appearance by Reds hall of famer Johnny Bench.
But Turner said the bond between team and town actually began in earnest immediately after the game.
“Opening Day was so exhilarating, but I think it really codified when the fans got back into their cars, got home in only a few minutes, and found the commute so easy,” Turner said. “A lot of the uncertainty dissipated right then and there.”
Pledge of support
Bob Murphy, the Dragons’ team president, and Eric Deutsch, executive vice president, stood by the Fifth Third Field exit gates after a recent game, an excruciating 11-10 loss in which a Beloit (Wis.) Snappers ninth-inning, pinch-hit grand slam helped erase what had been a 10-5 Dayton lead.
Stars for the nearby Reds like Joey Votto (here in 2003) have played their way to the majors through Dayton.
“They’re always there, always around,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO for the Dayton Development Coalition and a longtime season-ticket holder. “You can’t really make that sort of stuff up. It’s either who you are or not, and it’s just who they are. They truly walk the walk.”
A fundamental component of the Dragons’ business plan, and a key ingredient in the sellout streak, is a relentless approach to customer service that is laid out in a 10-point written pledge. While the pledge started with the Dragons, nowadays every employee across all of Mandalay Baseball Properties must sign the document every year.
That pledge, inspired in part by the noted customer service success at Disney theme parks, includes a lot of seemingly obvious tenets, such as thanking fans at every opportunity and employees’ taking immediate ownership of issues that arise. But the Dragons then back that up with a comprehensive “Dragons University” employee education and training program that workers must pass before they’re allowed to interact with the public.
“We’re absolutely obsessive about this stuff,” Murphy said. “Every single touchpoint with our customers has to be a positive and special one, and has to reflect the core values we’ve laid out.”
Those core values, in turn, manifest themselves in a variety of business practices unusual for a minor league baseball team, let alone one operating at the low Class A level.
Season-ticket renewal notices, and then the ticket books themselves, are mailed each year in an ever-changing set of elaborate, custom-designed keepsake boxes and containers. The incremental fees for printing and postage compared with more standard mailings each year run well into five figures, not an inconsiderable sum for a minor league team.
“But the idea is to make this look as far away from a cable bill as possible,” Murphy said. “We’re still building a brand, and trying to create an emotional connection, and those renewal pieces are a key component in that.”
The ticket sales operation works on a similar, against-the-grain philosophy. The club sports about 5,500 season-ticket accounts, with a waiting list of more than 8,000 people. But over the club’s decade-plus existence, the Dragons have seen a steadily increasing number of partial season-ticket plan holders, and have talked many patrons out of renewing at a full-season level and instead downgrading to a smaller package if they were found to have not been using many of their tickets.
“Even in some of the early frenzy, we just weren’t going to take a larger sale simply for the sake of taking the larger sale,” Murphy said. “We spend a lot of time with our fans figuring out what package is the best fit for them. We want the tickets to be used, and we want to get a good rotation of people coming through here.”
Even with the constant run of sellouts, the Dragons retain a fully staffed eight-person sales team that spends much of each summer simply checking in on ticket holders and ensuring that they remain satisfied.
The Dragons’ up-front spending on their game program, PlayBall, also sets them apart. Unlike most minor league clubs, which print a new program and scorebook each homestand or each month, and often charge for it, the Dragons print a new 32-page book for each home game, and give it away. PlayBall does, however, represent a core platform for Dragons corporate sponsors.
“Pretty much everything we do is designed to be the hard way,” Murphy said. “How we sell, how we market, everything, is harder. But we see a greater reward over the long term.”
The Dragons’ ticket renewal rate typically exceeds 95 percent each year, and its 2010 total attendance of 597,433 ranked fifth in all of Minor League Baseball, trailing four Class AAA teams.
Several mascots entertain the fans, including Gem (left) and Heater.
Similarly, the Dragons spend “deep into six figures” annually for their elaborate run of in-game entertainment, company officials said, built around a “Green Team” of staffers and interns who run the activities. With more than 70 games and acts in the regular arsenal and several mascots — including a “superhero” named Roofman, who fetches foul balls landing on the ballpark roof and uses special powers to turn them into Softee Balls for children, and a senior-citizen dance troupe called the Retirement Village People — the between-innings entertainment is a central component of Dragons games.
“Other teams rely on gimmicks, but [the Dragons have] created a much deeper, fuller experience,” said Jonathan Maurer, a Cincinnati-based baseball agent and longtime Dragons season-ticket holder. “I’ve been around to a ton of different ballparks, but you never get tired of going to a Dragons game.”
The Mandalay pledge also informs the club’s extensive involvement in charitable efforts. Among them is its MVP Program involving nearly 1,000 classrooms in three surrounding counties in which top-performing fourth- and fifth-graders are recognized each year at the ballpark. Dragons tickets and merchandise are used to recognize and inspire student effort, and unlike many other more standardized education rewards programs, teachers have complete latitude to determine the criteria for their respective student MVPs.
“It’s pretty much impossible to go to a fundraiser, silent auction, church picnic, what have you, around town where the Dragons aren’t already there with tickets, merchandise or some other kind of show of support,” said Shelley Dickstein, Dayton assistant city manager for strategic development.
Mandalay and Dragons officials declined to identify the club’s financials amid all the additional operational spending, citing their status as a privately held company, but Murphy said the club is and has been profitable.
Fifth Third Field seats 7,200, but berms allow the Dragons to push their average attendance beyond 8,400.
The 7,200 seats, representing the core sales threshold for a sellout, all have seatbacks and cupholders. The ballpark has 29 suites and three party decks, big numbers for Class A. There are no bleachers, but several lawn and berm areas allow the Dragons to push their annual average attendance beyond 8,400 a game.
Unlike many minor league stadiums dotted with billboards from seemingly every local company of consequence, Fifth Third Field is almost Olympics-like in its in-venue corporate austerity. The outfield wall features only one fixed sign — the Fifth Third Field logo — though more than 240 feet of electronic signage was installed in 2004. The extent of that Daktronics signage, essentially ringing the entire outfield minus the batter’s eye, was the largest of its type in baseball at the time of installation, and remains an anomaly in the minor leagues.
The main scoreboard features eight core sponsors, known as founding partners. Overall, the club is aligned with 55 sponsors, less than half the number for many minor and major league teams. But the relative exclusivity of a Dragons sponsorship has enabled the club to command higher fees.
“We’re not going to step over twenties to pick up quarters,” Murphy said. “The idea is to have the ballpark be anti-clutter.”
The Dragons opt for a tight sponsor roster and, beyond the scoreboard, a ballpark sporting relatively few logos.
“They’re always in front of us with new ideas,” said Vail Miller Jr., chief executive of Heidelberg Distributing Co., a major Anheuser-Busch distributor operating in the Dayton area. “They’ve taken the time to really study our business and figure out how it fits with theirs. We work with a lot of other teams in the [major leagues], and you get a sense these guys in many ways have more to offer.”
Similarly, Fifth Third Bank has replicated its Dayton naming-rights deal with several other facilities, including the Class AAA Toledo Mud Hens.
“Dayton, when we signed it, was the largest single piece of our marketing portfolio, and it’s given us considerable exposure,” said Dan Sadlier, now retired from the position of president and chief executive of Fifth Third Bank. “Remember, we were this Cincinnati bank that Dayton didn’t really know, and the Dragons gave an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to this community.”
A changing Dayton
The Dragons’ sellout streak has occurred during a time of massive transition for the Dayton region, similar to what’s occurred across much of the Midwest. For decades a rather traditional Rust Belt manufacturing hub, Dayton has seen General Motors in 2008 close a major assembly plant in nearby Moraine, Ohio, auto parts supplier Delphi winnow from about 15,000 local employees a decade ago to less than 300, and technology company NCR Corp. in 2009 shift its global headquarters to Duluth, Ga., after 125 years in Dayton.
Some local leaders suggest the Dragons have served as something of a community balm during the turbulent economic times.
“When people fall into chaos, they look for constants, and the Dragons have been an absolute steady during a lot of chaos and change for us,” said Jim Leftwich, director of the Ohio Department of Development.
Dayton-area unemployment now stands at 9 percent, its lowest mark in more than two years. The area has embraced a new mantra of “Meds, Eds and Feds” in which local health care operations, universities and the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base have all experienced marked growth.
“The Dragons are very much a core part of the message we now communicate to other candidate companies looking to come into the Dayton area as an example of what this community is all about,” Leftwich said. “And if we can get them on-site to the ballpark, so much the better.”
The trio of Murphy, Deutsch and Mayse and their individual skills are widely credited as another key element in the sellout streak. The three, along with five other front-office employees, have been with the Dragons their entire existence, a rarity in an industry known for high turnover.
But Mandalay has sought to strike a careful balance in which the three lead executives are given additional corporate responsibilities without uprooting them from Dayton. Four years ago, Mandalay promoted Murphy to chief operating officer for the Mandalay Baseball portfolio. The presidents of Mandalay’s five other teams report to him.
As a result, they have spent considerable time over the past few years aiding newer Mandalay teams such as the Class AAA Oklahoma City RedHawks and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, and seeking to repeat the Dayton formula.
“Fortunately, this is a company where we’ve continued to be challenged, and are always asked to keep raising the bar, not only here but across all our properties,” said Murphy, a Buffalo-area native who before moving to Dayton ran business operations for the Las Vegas Thunder of the International Hockey League and Las Vegas Stars of the Pacific Coast League.
Art Matin, Mandalay Baseball Properties president and CEO, said that Dayton’s management structure, in turn, is a model for the whole company.
“It’s hard to completely bottle that continuity in every situation, but one of our key principles is being able to give highly capable people the opportunities to keep growing with us,” Matin said. “There is unquestionably a core template, that leadership and the love affair between the team and community they’ve created, that we’re always attempting to replicate.”
Then there is the fun factor. Any successful minor league team makes fun a central component of everything it does in its business operations, and it’s immediately obvious that the lead executives still enjoy what they’re doing in Dayton. As the Dragons completed that ugly loss to Beloit, Murphy was nonetheless beaming as he stood at the exit gates.
“I just had a woman come up to me and say it was her first time here and she can’t wait to come back,” he said. “That’s exciting. We’ve just made another new fan.”