Class A Dayton packs ‘em in at record rate

Posted July 04, 2011, at 6:18 p.m.

DAYTON, Ohio — 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.

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