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The Big Sellout

How the Dayton Dragons became one of baseball’s most successful franchises.

The roster is full of anonymous, 18- to 23-year-old kids, most of whom were born after 1990. A few will bloom several years down the road, far removed from the confines of Dayton, Ohio. The majority will be out of baseball soon enough. But for now, they all belong to one of the preeminent entities in professional sports.

Since beginning play in 2000 as the Dayton Dragons, the Cincinnati Reds Single-A minor league affiliate has sold out every home baseball game in its 14-year existence, earning the longest streak in professional sports history. The Dragons shattered the previous mark of 814 straight contests—set by the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA from 1977 to 1995—back in July of 2011. When they host the Midwest League All-Star Game at Fifth Third Field later this month, the team will be hovering close to 950 consecutive sellouts.

It’s more than just attendance records; the litany of awards and honors bestowed upon the Dragons extends nearly as long as the string of sellouts. In 2007, Sports Illustrated featured the team as one of the “10 Hottest Tickets in Sports.” In 2012, they were presented with the John H. Johnson President’s Award for Franchise Excellence, the top honor in all of minor league baseball, and were named one of five finalists for the SportsBusiness Journal Professional Sports Team of the Year Award.

So how did this happen? How does a minor league team from Dayton, Ohio, get mentioned in the same breath as the top franchises in the world?

“We don’t do failure well,” notes team president Bob Murphy.

Clearly.

Back in the ’90s, Murphy and Executive Vice President Eric Deutsch were working with minor league clubs for Las Vegas–based Mandalay Baseball. When the company acquired a new team to be planted in Dayton, the pair seized the opportunity.

“Early on, it was like 50-50 in terms of people supporting it or people thinking it was the dumbest idea ever,” says Murphy.

“Those perceptions got an ugly death come game two,” Deutsch chimes in.

It all starts and ends with these two guys. Murphy is tall with broad shoulders, his clean-shaven face stuck in a permanent, wide smile. He’s engaging but not overbearing, confident without being cocky. If he claimed he could make Satan repent, you’d be quick to believe him. Deutsch, on the other hand, is short and bearded with a wry sense of humor, to the point that it’s tough to tell if he’s being facetious when describing the Dragons’ style of entertainment as “wholesome, Norman Rockwell type stuff.”

“Unsurpassed customer service,” says Deutsch, referring to one of the core business properties for Dayton baseball. “We really want customer service to be fanatical. Like, Disney-esque.”

They stress the importance of each and every fan interaction. A staff member giving a free Dragons hat to a young cancer patient so that his bald head wouldn’t bake in the sun. Season ticket packages and renewal notices delivered to every purchaser in the form of a special collectors item, such as a hollowed-out Dragons book with the tickets inside or a customized Dayton Dragons newspaper. And whether you buy the full 70-game slate or simply an eight-game package, the organization deems you a season ticket holder, providing each patron with the same perks and level of attention.

“I constantly tell [our employees], Solve the problem. If I think you are getting too crazy with solving the problem, I’ll reign you back in,” says Murphy. “Thirteen-plus seasons, I’ve never had to.”

The franchise knows that in order to attract and keep the interest of the more casual fans, it has to sell the experience of going to a game as much as the game itself. “We have well over a couple hundred skits, bits, things that engage fans and are fun,” says Murphy. “If somebody is going to leave their seat, they’ll get up when the inning starts so that they can get back to their seat for the inning break.”

It goes beyond Cracker Jacks and happy faces, too. Murphy and Deutsch are constantly stressing personalization when dealing with their corporate clients, inspiring a less-is-more philosophy. While most minor league clubs might have hundreds of different partners, the Dragons limit their number to 45 or 50, allowing for greater attention to detail. “We were always impressed by their classy presence. They are just good at what they do,” says Dan Sadlier, who retired in 2005 as president of Fifth Third Bank for Western Ohio. Sadlier was key in securing Fifth Third’s ballpark naming rights. “It’s not diluted. You really have the focus of that investment,” he says. “It’s been a helluva good relationship from the get-go, I’ll tell ya.”

“It allows us to be more dynamic,” Deutsch says of the approach.

Dynamic off the field, sure, but what about on the field? Isn’t that what matters most in sports?

Not exactly. In 2010, the Dragons sputtered to a 53-85 last-place finish in their division, including an impressively ugly 24-game home losing streak. And the park was jam-packed for every single one. As a minor league affiliate, Dayton has zero control over which players comprise the ball club. The Reds set the roster. Instead, the franchise focuses on the things it can control, which so far has served them just fine.

“People say it’s almost like they came to a party and a baseball game kind of happened while they were here,” says Deutsch. “Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but you know you’ll come back.”

It’s why the Dragons succeed, but it’s also what keeps them from growing complacent. It’s not the score of last night’s game that wakes Bob Murphy in the middle of the night but rather the thought of losing the sellout streak. It’s why he stood before his staff 14 years ago and requested “the best organization in sports.”

“You don’t want to limit yourself by saying anything else,” he adds.

On June 18, a roster full of anonymous Midwest League All-Stars will run out onto Fifth Third Field. The vast majority of fans in attendance won’t recognize a single name in either lineup. Some won’t be interested in the game at all. And there won’t be an empty seat in the house.

 

Great in Dayton

Bloom Like a Rose

About 60 former Dayton Dragons players have reached the major league level, including current Reds Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey, and Todd Frazier.

Showtime Owners

NBA legend Magic Johnson and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin both have an ownership stake in the Dragons.

Getting Personal              

Each corporate client of the Dragons receives a customized annual report at the end of each year detailing what the Dragons provided specifically for their company. “We’re very, very accountable,” says president Bob Murphy.

All the Good People

Dayton has led all Single-A teams in attendance in every year of the team’s existence. Last season, the Dragons finished third in attendance among all 160 teams in minor league baseball, averaging about 8,500 fans a game. They’ve retained 95 percent of their season ticket holders since the 2000 season.

 

Originally published in the July 2013 issue.

Photograph courtesy the Dayton Dragons