How minor league sports teams are bringing big league entertainment to Dayton
By Nicole Wroten
Dayton is a sports town. The very first NFL game was played right here in Dayton. On October 3, 1920, the Dayton Triangles beat the Columbus Panhandles, 14-0 in the first game of the American Professional Football Association, what would become the National Football League in 1922.
Whether it’s hearing “Welcome to the Jungle” from someone’s car stereo headed south on I-75 on a Sunday, trying to squeeze your way into any bar within a 5- mile radius of UD on a Saturday in March, or hearing “O-H” shouted drunkenly at last call after a Saturday afternoon Buckeyes win, you know you’re in the epicenter of Ohio sports greatness when you’re in Dayton.
The Bengals, the Browns, the Reds, the Flyers, the Raiders, the Bearcats, the Buckeyes and the Cavs. Their fans live and die for these teams right here in the Gem City. The caliber of sports fans we have in the Miami Valley cannot be surpassed, so it’s no wonder Dayton is home to so many minor league teams; six to be exact.
The Dayton Airstrikers, the newest minor league team in the Gem City, is the greater Dayton/ Miami Valley region’s professional basketball team. They began their inaugural season in December as a part of the Premier Basketball League.
“I think one of the main reasons that I started a team here was that [Dayton] is a sports town and a sports region,” said Airstrikers President Anthony Byrd. “There’s a lot of interest because the closest NBA team in Ohio is three hours away,” he said. “So if you want to watch professional basketball, there isn’t an outlet for it.”
Byrd is just one of the masterminds behind a growing trend in Dayton: major sports, minor teams.
“I think the more sports fans the better,” said Bob Murphy, president of the Dayton Dragons, the Class A minor league baseball team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds. “You might follow college football, the NFL or MLB, it just lends itself that you will go to sporting events. I think that as long as we’re creating more sports fans in a big sports town [like Dayton], you’re going to do well.”
Murphy insists that while Dragons’ games are incredibly professional and just as exciting to watch, if not more so, they are a completely different product than major league sports.
“We’re not in competition with the Cincinnati Reds; with Ohio State,” said Murphy. “When you get into the ‘big’ sports, it’s all about winning. It’s about being competitive. We’re just not like that, we’re completely different.”
When Dayton Dragons fans come to a game, they come for several things. Great hot dogs, beer, peanuts (Cracker Jacks?), some great baseball and occasionally some fireworks. Oh, and one more thing – the toddler races. Toddlers from fan families are chosen before the game, brought down to the field and strapped with a mini crash helmet. Safety first.
“It has just become one of the best things ever,” said Murphy. “Once those crash helmets go on, it’s all business out there.”
The Dayton Gems have one of the most storied histories of all the minor league teams in Dayton. The original Dayton Gems played at Hara Arena from 1964 to 1977 in the International Hockey League (IHL). The “new” Gems were brought back in 2009 and moved to the Central Hockey League (CHL) for the 2010-2011 season. The Gems are another Dayton team that pride themselves on a great game and lively family entertainment.
“Participate in the popular ‘chuck-a-puck’ promotion at 2nd intermission where fans can throw foam pucks on to the ice for a chance to win cash,” suggested Dayton Gems President Joe Greene. “Get out of your seat and dance to the YMCA, Chicken Dance or Cha Cha Slide! Regardless of the score at the end of the game, fans will enjoy an evening of exciting, hard-hitting hockey, while being entertained.”
Relative newcomers, the Dayton Dutch Lions professional soccer club was purchased in October 2009, and founded by Dutch natives Mike Mossel and Erik Tammer. The Dayton Dutch really like getting their fans involved in all the action.
“[Fans] can join what we call the Orange Legion, a fun, loud fan base dressed in all orange,” said Marketing and Sales Manager Kathryn Bluher. “We want to incorporate each fan into each match. It is our hope to bring the level of fan involvement the European cultures have embraced to Dayton.”
Play means PLAY
A lot of minor league teams are known for their off-the-field/court antics and entertainment, but one of the reasons people attend a lot of these games is … well, it’s a game. Many minor league teams not only offer family entertainment, but a great game for those who want to watch one.
“The quality of play is going to be up there,” said Kevin Bukvic, director of marketing and community relations for the Dayton Silverbacks, Dayton’s professional indoor football team and members of the Continental Indoor Football League. “We just played against Cincinnati (the Commandos), the defending champions. It was within five points until the last few minutes.”
President and Owner of the Dayton Diamonds, Tanya Jackson agrees. The Diamonds are Dayton’s women’s football team and members of the Women’s Football Alliance. Jackson’s players give everything they have out on the field and really showcase their talent. The only difference is her players are women. “You would be impressed the way the ladies hit each other,” said Jackson. “To see women out there playing, they hit hard and they run hard.”
“The thing about our guys is, it’s professional, so you’re going to have triple-digit [scores],” said Byrd about the Airstrikers. The Airstrikers are lucky to have a stellar lineup of players and, like the other teams, a lot of their players have an added value for the fans: they’re local.
“One of the key things that we do and that we pride ourselves on is getting guys who are recognizable from the region,” said Byrd. “It’s really great for the local community to see some of the guys that they watched grow up.” The Airstrikers just announced the signing of their new coach on April 19, Dayton native and player/Coach Chris McGuire.
The Diamonds roster is almost 100 percent local. “Most of [our players] are from Fairborn, Dayton, Trotwood. We also have Kryshana Pierce who was the only girl to ever play for Trotwood High School ’s football team.”
The Silverbacks’ head coach Derek Shepherd is also a Daytonian. He played at Meadowdale High School and then went on to Georgia Tech, followed by a stint in the NFL.
Minor league should be a synonym for family-friendly. That’s what they’re all about. Though each team has great athletes and puts on an exciting game, what fans really come for is a night out with the family.
“We want people to come whether it’s a family with kids, getting to meet the mascot and get onto the field to get autographs with the players,” said Bukvic about Silverbacks football games.
Murphy insists people want to take their families somewhere clean and safe, where the fun is guaranteed.
“When it comes to the fun, we really offer up some good entertainment,” said Murphy. “We almost want it to be Disney-esque in our approach.”
But entertaining a family these days can get pretty pricey. The average cost for a family of four to go to the movies is around $80 and that’s not including pricing for a 3D movie, which can run as much as $14 per ticket. How can local families afford to go out together?
“You want it to be affordable, you want it to be something where an entire family could come out and do, without necessarily taking out another mortgage on their home,” said Murphy about coming to Dragons games.
Many minor league teams in Dayton, like the Dragons, are trying to solve the “cost” issue of family entertainment with low ticket prices and special family packages.
A Winning Triumph
Producing a quality product, like most of these teams, does have its benefits as a business, not just an entertainment outlet. The teams that have been around longer have enjoyed success and the newbies like the Airstrikers, the Dutch Lions and the “new” Gems aren’t far behind them.
The Gems’ average attendance increased 46 percent from last season, which ranks first in all of minor league pro hockey. In December, the first Airstrikers away game sold out to a crowd of 10,000 people on New Year’s Eve and was televised nationally on DirecTV. Likewise, the Dutch Lions are planning their first ‘big’ match to be played at Fifth-Third Field on Saturday, May 28. The Dutch Lions will host the Charlotte Eagles in a match-up they hope to sell out.
But selling out one game doesn’t compare to the success the Dayton Dragons have experienced in their current 12-season run. Sports Illustrated ranked Dragons games as one of the Top 10 “Hottest Tickets” in sports. They’re also the first (and only) team in minor league baseball history to sell out an entire season before it began.
This year, they will be setting the all-time sports record for sell-outs, surpassing the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers. The reason for this surmounted success? Murphy thinks it has everything to do with customer service.
“We don’t just treat the people that come in as fans, we treat them as customers,” he said. “We want to make sure that they have a wonderful experience.”
Murphy thinks this commitment to fans is what results in a 94 percent renewal rate on their season tickets, a huge part of their business. In fact, there is currently a waiting list of 9,000 people for season tickets.
Murphy likened Dragons season tickets to the phenomenon of Boston Red Sox season tickets being passed down through families. “People call during divorce proceedings to make sure the names on their tickets aren’t changed,” said Murphy.
This success has caused the Dragons to become a role model for other minor league teams in the area with hopes of experiencing the same success.
“I think sports can flourish if given enough support and positioned properly,” said Bluher about the Dutch Lions coming into the Dayton market. “Looking at the Dragons alone, they have a very sustainable model for long-term success.”
Bukvic and the Silverbacks take a similar approach to the Dragons in providing a quality product that enriches the community. “If you provide something that gives back to the community and something that has a positive influence on the community,” said Buckvic, “I’m certain that the city will support it.”
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of having so many minor league teams in the Dayton area is not just getting the chance to watch a great game, but seeing these teams active in the community. Every team has a dedicated charity or charities that they continually work with and almost all are involved in youth sports and public school programs throughout the region.
With over 61,000 registered youth soccer players in southern Ohio, the Dutch Lions want to take advantage of the popularity of youth soccer in the Miami Valley and use it to give something back. “In 2011 alone we visited over 23 different schools in the Dayton community and offered free assemblies and P.E. sessions to students,” said Bluher. “We thought it was a great opportunity to give back and teach children good sportsmanship, healthy habits and the importance of balancing academics and athletics.”
Similarly the Silverbacks are also focused on helping youth in local schools. They often send players to local schools to speak on topics including exercising and fighting childhood obesity. “We really like interacting with kids because we feel like that’s where we can make our best impressions,” said Bukvic.
The Diamonds have visited several football teams in the surrounding areas that have female players, encouraging them. “All these little girls come up to me, at 12 and 13 years old, saying ‘Oh I want to play,’” Jackson said. “I say, ‘Come and see me when you get to be 18.’”
The Airstrikers take advantage of their influence with youth sports teams, especially basketball, to speak to kids within the community. “We’re a community-based organization,” said Byrd. “If there’s one thing we believe in, it’s family and the community.”
This past season, the Gems donated over $30,000 to regional charitable organizations through fundraising efforts. “We are the only team that requires our players to attend youth hockey practices on a weekly basis,” said Greene. “We’ve built our organization with people first.”
Likeiwse, the Dragons are heavily involved in a lot of area organizations, as well as working with their corporate partners and their charities. One of Murphy’s favorite programs is the Dragons MVP Program, which is in over 1,000 classrooms across Clark, Greene and Montgomery counties. Murphy said that being a minor league team isn’t like having a regular business. “You have a power to do something positive and impact people’s lives,” he said. “We work to do so, not sell tickets, but because we can make a difference in their lives.”
The future looks bright for all of these Dayton-based teams. Their success and popularity with Dayton sports fans has only further proven Dayton’s great love for sports. We love our Buckeyes and we love our Reds, but these six minor league teams are all right here in the Gem City – in our own backyards. Play ball!
Reach DCP Editor Nicole Wroten at email@example.com.