|For One Minor League Baseball Team, Never an Empty Seat|
|Viernes 15 de Julio de 2011 18:41|
Slide Show. A Major Success Story
DAYTON, Ohio — The assembly line lives. Back when this region thrived on heavy industry, a Delco plant bustled on the edge of downtown. Nowadays, on the site where automobile parts once rolled off the belt, Dayton produces sold-out baseball games.
On Saturday, barring a rainout, the Dayton Dragons will have their 815th consecutive sellout, surpassing the national sports record set by the N.B.A.’s Portland Trail Blazers from 1977 to 1995.
This is a stunning success, considering the decline of industry even before the recent recession. Yet the city is holding on, as fans subscribe to season-ticket plans, lured by the old American game itself — and maybe even more by showbiz shtick from performers known as the Green Team and goofy mascots like Gem and Heater.
"I took my 90-year-old mother to games for three years," said Fritz Menke, a season-ticket holder since 2000, the first year. "If I asked one of the Green Team, Heater would come over and give her a kiss on the top of her head, and she would get all red in the face — and talk about it for a week afterward."
His mother has since died, but Menke retains a partial-season plan. Fans are so loyal that some have waited three years to be able to subscribe, a tribute to the upbeat approach of the Mandalay Entertainment Group and its baseball division, which owns six minor league teams. Its investors include the movie magnate Peter Guber and the sports icons Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin.
Minor league baseball has been rebounding for several decades, with new stadiums replacing rickety, gloomy old parks. But no franchise has sold out like the Dragons of the Class A Midwest League, who have also sent Adam Dunn, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to the parent Cincinnati Reds, just 52 miles down Interstate 75.
"When Joey and I played there, people told me that if you never make the majors, this is as close as you will ever come," said Chris Dickerson, an outfielder with the Yankees, who batted .303 for the Dragons in 2004. "Everything was first class — the front office, the ground crew, a true class act. I still have dear friends in the Reds organization that I met in Dayton. It’s no surprise they’re about to break the record."
The wonder is that Mandalay has thrived in a region that has taken a terrible hit in recent generations. Dayton is known for innovators like the Wright Brothers of aviation; Charles F. Kettering, a founder of Delco; and John H. Patterson, the founder of NCR, once known as National Cash Register.
Then industry began drying up and so did Dayton — down about 40 percent to an estimated 158,832 in 2009 from 262,332 in 1960, according to the Census Bureau. The metropolitan region has about one million residents, but the core of the city was looking threadbare in the mid-1990s. One early believer was Anthony Capizzi, then a city commissioner, now a Montgomery County Juvenile Court judge.
"Being an urban mayor, I knew that people went to games in downtown Cincinnati," said Michael Turner, a former mayor of Dayton and now a five-term United States representative from the district. "We felt they would come here for the right mix."
A task force began trying to lure a baseball team to keep the city active in the warmer months.
"We found out it wasn’t so easy," said Dan Sadlier, then the president of Fifth Third Bank, who praised Maureen Pero and others on the task force.
A Bold Stroke of Green
The region has a great baseball tradition. Cincinnati had the first professional team in the country in 1869 and Dayton has sent many fans and nationally prominent sportswriters downstate to follow the Reds. But in the 1990s, Marge Schott, the owner of the Reds, was asserting her right to ban all competition in a 75-mile radius. In 1999, Schott was phased out for other reasons, and the new leadership agreed to stock a prospective farm team in Dayton.
The Mandalay group found an available franchise in Rockford, Ill., but it needed a ballpark. Some suburban communities and one college wanted to host the team, but the task force wanted the team to help revitalize the crumbling downtown.
One of the challenges was "the urban myth" of crime, said Joe Tuss, the deputy county administrator for Montgomery County. Another myth was that driving downtown would be difficult.
"We’d love to have traffic and parking problems," Tuss said the other day.
The leaders knew taxpayers would be skeptical of the cost, but the ballpark never went to a referendum. Tuss said Mandalay invested $5.5 million into building a stadium and agreed to pay for 100 percent of the upkeep in a long-term commitment. Under Sadlier’s leadership, Fifth Third Bank bought the naming rights for 20 years. Tuss said the city invested $22.5 million on streets, sidewalks and the infrastructure around the ballpark.
Once the team was set for the 2000 season, Mandalay went to work with its bodies-in-seats expertise.
"We believe minor league baseball is a great marriage between entertainment and sports," said Art Matin, the chief executive of Mandalay, based in New York. Matin was not with the company then, as it dispatched talented executives including Jon Spoelstra, who had helped Portland establish the sellout record about to be broken by the Dragons.
The biggest move may have been the transfer of two Mandalay executives — Robert Murphy, now the chief operating officer for all six Mandalay baseball teams, and Eric Deutsch, the executive vice president — to Dayton from Las Vegas. Their mission was to install a ballpark culture that would be "almost Disneyesque," Deutsch said.
There is nothing minor league about these two executives, who wear business suits and take meetings and brandish thick corporate handbooks with guidelines for every occasion. They also exhibit their inner Bill Veeck — that is, the legendary shirt-sleeve, beer-drinking, cigar-smoking, wooden-legged man of the people who lured fans into seats any way he could.
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