Since it opened in 2000, Fifth Third Field, the home of Class A Minor League Baseball’s Dayton Dragons, has sold out every single regular season game it has hosted. With more than 7,000 seats in a city not renowned for a passionate fan base, how is this possible?
I traveled to Fifth Third Field in September to take a tour and interview Tom Nichols, the Dragons’ Director of Media Relations and Broadcasting, for a feature story to be published in Flyer News. You can check that story out HERE.
While the park is a minor league jewel, especially in Low Class-A ball, none of its features seemed to give it the sliced-bread status necessary for a sellout streak unparalleled in North American sports history.
But Nichols made a few points that hinted towards Dayton’s success. First, he defined a sellout.
“The definition of a sellout here means that every seat was sold. It’s not really factoring in the number of people who are out on the lawn sections, but it’s the number of seats in the ballpark and all were sold–that would define a sellout. It also doesn’t have anything to do with how many people actually show up for the game. We could have a sellout and the place would be totally empty if every seat was sold and no one showed up. So people sometimes will ask about that.”
Nichols then laid out four important philosophies to which the Dragons adhere, aiming to attract and retain patrons.
The first, he calls “unsurpassed customer service.”
“A few years back, we had a season ticket holder who got to a point where she got a little older. It became harder and harder for her to park her car and then walk to wherever she parked her car to the game. And she told her rep, each season ticket holder has a team representative here, she told her rep about that problem. And without telling anyone, he made a deal with her that he would let her call him on his cell phone when she pulled up, and he would come out and actually get her car, park her car, and walk back. And then when it was time for her to leave, she would again call him on the cell phone and he would get her car and pull it back up, and she would get in the car and go home…That’s a big part of our philosophy, we call it unsurpassed customer service.”
The second was providing a professional family entertainment atmosphere.
“For example, the Green Team, if you were to walk in the ballpark at 5:00 for a 7:00 game, you’d literally see that group of 15 or so rehearsing the skits and the sing-a-longs and the contests that they are gonna do that night. Each night they get on the field for an hour or so and run through all that. It’s sort of aimed at that Disney style of production. We want everyone that comes in here to feel like they’re in a first class, first-rate event.”
Following right along with that is affordability. At major league parks where even the nosebleed seats run for at least $20 per ticket, it can be hard to take a whole family out to a game. Like many teams across the minor leagues, the Dragons stress affordability.
“You can come here and get a ticket and sit in the lawn section, you can buy a ticket for as little as $9.”
And finally, the marketing strategy that likely benefits ticket sales the most for Dayton is community involvement.
“You can’t just run a baseball team, you have to stay connected with the community…We have something called a Classroom MVP program where players go out to classrooms and speak to fourth and fifth grade classes…We have a number of military appreciation nights that involve the local Air Force Base…We have a number of what we call Community All Stars…where we honor people in the community who did something heroic.”
It’s the community as a whole that reciprocates in that relationship with the Dragons. “Over ninety percent of our tickets sold are season tickets, so that’s done even before the season begins,” Nichols said.
The Dragons also sell a large number of group ticket packages before the season begins. In all, Nichols explained, the Dragons have “never really been close” to not selling out.
“Based on the season tickets, before the season starts even, we know where we stand on that,” he said. “So when I say never been close I think our smallest crowd has been somewhere in the 7600-range.”
But if you find yourself in Dayton on a game night, don’t assume tickets are unavailable. You can still score seats at Fifth Third Field from the box office.
“Two ways that can happen. We have to hold back every night 200 tickets for the players, for both teams, and they often times won’t use their allotment. Players get free tickets, like 4 per player, and both teams. Some of the guys, if they guy is from California, chances are he’s not going to use his tickets every night. We have to hold those back, though, just in case. After the pass list comes up from the clubhouse to the ticket office, the box office will release the tickets that are not going to be used. The other thing that can happen sometimes is if we do a big group sale…church groups, little leagues, business organizations, area cities, smaller towns that may bring a group, let’s say they purchase 1,000 tickets and then at the last minute they turn 100 back in, then those 100 would go on sale.”
Whatever their secret, the Dragons clearly have a recipe for success, and are a great example of what makes Minor League Baseball a charm of small(er)-town America.