There was a time, not all that long ago, that coming to downtown Dayton, Ohio, meant settling for ballpark food without a ballpark to eat it in.
"I came back here in 1985 to run the family business, and the area was not in great shape," said Alan Pippenger, whose Requarth Company has been in Dayton for so long that the Wright Brothers were customers. "I asked someone where do you go for lunch. They said, 'Well, you can walk over to Sears and there's a place in the basement you can get a hot dog.'"
The Sears store is long gone, but these days Pippenger can get a hot dog and much more. He can catch a ballgame, too, although it's a good thing he signed up for season tickets when the Dayton Dragons showed up 18 years ago. He hasn't given up those seats yet, and not many around him have either.
These days, so many people come to downtown Dayton that the Dragons can claim every game as a sellout. Every game, for 18 years.
No major league team has ever done that. No minor league team has ever done that. No professional team in any sport can match the 1,242 consecutive sellouts the Dragons have announced, with four more expected before the Midwest League's regular season ends Sept. 8. The popularity has made the Dayton franchise one of the most valuable in the minor leagues, without having to sell its soul.
"The consistency, year after year, is incredible," said Richard Nussbaum, president of the Class A Midwest League, where the Dragons play as a Cincinnati Reds affiliate. "They've got the secret sauce."
The Dragons annually outdraw every other team in Class A, every team in Double-A and all but a half-dozen of the 30 teams in Triple-A. They won't outdraw any major league teams this year, but their average of 8,037 a game is better than the 7,935 average the major league Montreal Expos attracted in 2001, four years before they moved to Washington.
Olympic Stadium has 56,040 seats. Fifth Third Field in Dayton has 6,830.
It's a stretch to say every one of those seats is filled for every game. Season-ticket holders don't show up every night. The Dragons website shows at least a few tickets for sale most nights. Some tickets are held back as required for player pass lists and released for sale if not needed. General admission tickets for lawn seating are available.
But the sellout streak is legit. The crowds are big, night after night. The atmosphere is unlike anywhere else.
"At the field, everyone loves you," said Cleveland Indians major leaguer Jay Bruce, who was a Dragon in 2006. "It was just a blast."
The players love the support. The fans love how accessible the players are.
Everyone knows they're part of something special, something that just doesn't happen in every city with every team.
"I'll be going to watch until I can't go anymore," said 71-year-old Fritz Menke, another who has been a Dragons season-ticket holder for all 18 seasons. "I love that place."
The Dragons are special, proof that baseball can work when it's done right and in the right place, that it can still attract fans young and old. The Dragons also are proof that in not chasing every last dollar and instant gratification, a professional team can build a loyal following that will last.
They came to Dayton nearly two decades ago promising to break the mold on how teams are run. They were stunned to sell out the entire first season by Opening Day but quickly set a goal of making it last.
"After that first year, we were really dumb and said we'd get to 500 straight sellouts," said Robert Murphy, the team's president and general manager since the beginning. "That was really dumb. We were just setting ourselves up for failure. We had a waiting list, and we knew the waiting list was real because we kept in touch with them. But I thought 500 was a crazy number.
"And once we got to 500, that's when I really got paranoid."
Five years later, the Dragons' streak reached 815, breaking the record set by the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers for a U.S. professional sports team.
That was in 2011. Six years later, the streak goes on.
The Dragons aren't selling championship baseball. They've never won a Midwest League title in their 18-year history. They've had some good players (Joey Votto, Didi Gregorius and Justin Turner are among those who have passed through) and exciting players (Billy Hamilton stole 103 bases in 135 games in Dayton in 2011).
Just this season, Jose Siri had a 39-game hitting streak, breaking a league record that had stood for 40 years.
But the Dragons also had two years where they lost more than 90 games, tough to do in a 140-game minor league season.
No matter. The streak went on.
"People drive home thinking, 'I'm not sure whether we won 3-2 or lost 3-2, but I know we had a good time,'" said executive vice president Eric Deutsch, who like Murphy has been there from the beginning.
Like all affiliated teams in the minors, the Dragons don't set their roster and have no control over player moves. The parent Reds assign players to the Dragons each March, and while they wouldn't mind seeing them win, the more important goal is to develop the prospects to eventually get to Cincinnati.
There are bobbleheads of Hamilton, Adam Dunn and Johnny Cueto, all in Dragons uniforms. But there's also one of Roofman.
Yes, Roofman, the clumsy superhero (as Murphy describes him) who lives on the Fifth Third Field roof. When foul balls reach the roof, Roofman transforms them into softee balls that he throws back into the stands.
It's all part of the show, a show that on any given night might include The Retirement Village People (a singing group), Golden Oldies (more retirees, this time competing to come up with the best pickup lines) and Toddler Racing (just what it sounds like).
The Dragons sell entertainment much more than they sell baseball. They sell a family atmosphere and a night out, and while every minor league team likely has that as a plan, in Dayton it has worked and keeps working.
"Until people come here and experience it, they don't understand it," Murphy said. "It's why I always hear people saying, 'My wife hates sports, but she loves coming to Dragons games.'"
Murphy and Deutsch hear from their fans often because they make a point of standing at the gate every night to thank their customers for coming to the game. They and the rest of the Dragons staff (about 40-50 full-time year-round employees) make regular appearances at local events too.
"I do about 50 speeches a year," said Tom Nichols, the team's broadcaster since 2008. "At the end of each one I do a Q&A session. At almost every speech, someone will raise a hand and say: 'I don't have a question, but I just want to thank you for doing what you're doing. It means so much to our family.'"
The Dragons are obviously a financial success. Mandalay Baseball Properties, the original owner, sold the team in 2014 for a minor league record of nearly $40 million, according to Eric Fisher of SportsBusiness Daily. When Forbes ranked the most valuable franchises in the minor leagues last summer, the magazine placed the Dragons third at $45 million, behind only the Triple-A franchises in Sacramento and Charlotte.
But part of the business model that has worked so well in Dayton is not trying to squeeze every dollar out of every fan every day.
The Dragons limit the amount of advertising in their ballpark, and they don't sell sponsorships for most of the in-game entertainment.
"We don't do things in front of our fans because people pay us to do them," Murphy said. "Some teams feel it's their God-given right to subject people to whatever someone pays them to say. We don't want to do that. It's a pure entertainment experience, and we thought there would be coordination between season-ticket renewals and people having a great experience."
And when they have a giveaway item, there's no sponsor logo on it.
"It's quality stuff," Pippenger said. "Put it this way. It's about to rain, and when I go out I'm going to grab my Dragons umbrella."
He has one, because the Dragons make sure every season-ticket holder gets every item whether they make it to the park that night or not. Rather than use giveaways to fill the park for one night, as most franchises do, they use their giveaways to reward the most loyal fans.
"They make you feel special," Pippenger said.
The entertainment helps. The loyalty to their fans helps, and so does the nice ballpark and the strong customer service.
But the Dragons also found the right city at the right time. Minor league operators had been trying to get to Dayton for many years before 2000 without success. The city sits barely an hour north of Cincinnati, and thus any team that moved there would need the Reds' permission.
For years, the Reds wouldn't consider it.
That changed in the late 1990s, right around the time a group of local leaders in the Downtown Dayton Partnership decided that a ballpark and a minor league team could anchor their hoped-for downtown revival. Sherrie Myers bought the Rockford Cubbies with the intention of moving them to a new park in Dayton.
"The analytics were very encouraging," Myers said. "At the time, Dayton was the largest city in the country that didn't have an affiliated major or minor league team. They had a large base to draw from; they had school groups, church groups and businesses with 100 or more employees. The analytics looked great."
Unfortunately for Myers, the people who run minor league baseball determined that her interest in another franchise (in Lansing, Michigan) was an issue. Before the ballpark was even built, she had to sell the franchise to Mandalay, which got basketball's Magic Johnson and Ohio State legend Archie Griffin involved as part-owners.
"There are still some days I'm sad about that," she said of having to give up the team.
The ballpark eventually got built, right across the street from Pippenger's Requarth Company warehouse. Plenty of other things got built too, including a performing arts center, a riverside park, bars, restaurants and nice enough housing that a couple of years ago, Pippenger decided to live just a few blocks away.
"Ultimately, the strategy worked," said Maureen Pero, who was president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership during the time the ballpark was planned and opened. "Our downtown is booming."
The Dragons are a part of that. It's hard for anyone to say how big a part of it they are, but it seems everyone in Dayton gives them some of the credit.
If nothing else, it's a place you can go get a hot dog.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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