Minor League Baseball set an attendance record last year, and the poster-child team for that success resides in the Ohio Valley. The Dayton Dragons sold out every game for the ninth consecutive season in 2008, with 8,624 fans coming through the turnstiles to watch the Single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds on a nightly basis. Gary Mayse, the team’s Executive Vice President and General Manager, talked about why Dragons baseball is so popular, and the reasons that minor league baseball will continue to thrive despite the economic downturn.
David Laurila: What is the history of not only the Dragons, but of baseball in Dayton?
Gary Mayse: The Dragons’ first season was 2000, so we are heading into our 10th year. So far, we have had 31 Dragons’ players advance to the major leagues, including Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Edwin Encarnacion, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce. The City of Dayton hosted professional baseball on a fairly consistent basis from 1884-1951, but from the time the Dayton Indians shut down with the Central League at the end of the 1951 season, until the Dragons arrived in 2000, there was no professional baseball in Dayton. There is also a long list of major league players who were born or raised in the Dayton area, including Mike Schmidt, Chris Chambliss, Harvey Haddix, Dave Burba, and Will McEnaney.
DL: How did professional baseball return to Dayton?
GM: The Dayton Dragons franchise originally played out of Rockford, Illinois, and our ownership group [Mandalay Sports Entertainment] purchased the team back in 1998. They operated the franchise in Rockford for the 1999 season while our stadium was being built, and then we moved to Dayton and opened up here in April of 2000. The city was involved in helping us build the stadium as part of an effort to help revitalize the downtown area; the stadium was a real anchor in that revitalization. When Mandalay got involved, the plan was for the team to come to Dayton.
DL: The Dragons are among the most successful franchises in minor league baseball. What do you attribute that to?
GM: We are very fortunate and humbled by our success. There are many factors. For starters, the Dayton area is a tremendous sports market with great fans. Secondly, our sponsors are very important, and they’re always there to support us. We have the cream of the crop in the Dayton community and some incredible community and industry leaders. Next, our ownership group, Mandalay, provides us with great resources. They make sure that their teams always have the resources they need to be successful, and they challenge us each and every year. We have to give credit to the city government, county government, Downtown Dayton Partnership, Chamber of Commerce, Baseball Task Force, and so many economic and governmental development groups that worked so hard in the 1990’s to move baseball to the approval point in 1999. Finally, our stadium has a fantastic design. A great group of contractors built a great stadium.
DL: What impact will the current economic downturn have on both the Dragons and minor league baseball as a whole?
GM: Well, the economic downturn is something that is not just affecting all of baseball, it’s affecting the entire country, and if you want to take it even further, the entire world is being faced with an economic downturn. As far as baseball itself goes, the economic conditions most likely will differ from community to community. Minor league baseball clubs will continue to strive to provide nothing but a great night of entertainment and value to our fans. The great thing about minor league baseball is that it is very family-affordable. With our emphasis on the smaller season-ticket mini-game plans-we have had a strategic de-emphasis on the full-season ticket plan for a few years now-many of our ticket holders have a very small investment for their ticket plans. And even in this economic recession, I think people are still looking for entertainment. They’re looking for some relief, and Dayton baseball, and minor league baseball as a whole, is offering a great entertainment option for families to bring their kids to the games, with affordable tickets, to have a great evening of fun in a social atmosphere.
DL: How important is your affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds, primarily as it pertains to your fan base?
GM: The Cincinnati Reds have been our affiliate since the Dayton Dragons inaugural season in April of 2000. Our agreement with the Reds, especially with them just 50 miles away from Dayton, provides a great opportunity to strengthen the relationship of the Dayton baseball community to Reds baseball. Fans have commented how they have enjoyed following our young players from Dayton, to other levels, and then on to the Reds. We have a great fan base here in the Ohio Valley-the same fan base that has supported the Reds for many, many years.
DL: What kind of media coverage do the Dragons get?
GM: The Dayton media market is tremendous. We are covered liked a major league team, but in a minor league market. We have a dedicated beat writer from the major newspaper, the Dayton Daily News, who attends every home game, and they also send many other sports, entertainment, special project, and business reporters to cover the Dragons for a wide variety of sports-story angles. Same can be said for our TV media. We have cameras at the stadium every night from all local network stations getting footage for the nightly news. The media have been terrific to our team, players, and coaches.
DL: Going back to the financial aspect of the game, what is the salary structure for minor league baseball players?
GM: I can’t give a specific answer, because the parent club of the affiliate is responsible for the compensation of the players. And that obviously varies from player to player, but a Single-A ballplayer is probably going to average anywhere from a thousand to twelve hundred dollars a month. But we’re not involved in that part of the business. There are a lot of aspects that the minor league teams are responsible for, like travel and hotel expenses, and we try to do our best to make sure that the standards we’re providing to our players are the best possible here in Dayton, Ohio.
DL: How does the role of a minor league general manager differ from that of a big-league GM?
GM: As a GM at the minor league level, you’re really dealing more with the business operations facet of a team, whereas at the big-league level you’re concerned with putting together the makeup of the team within baseball operations, from the big-league roster on down through the player development system. In the minor leagues it’s primarily about business, and just looking at the operations side of it, there are a lot of different hats to wear. You have your game-day operations, your ground-field operations, and we have a facilities-operations department. We also have a team-operations department that deals specifically with the Reds and our players here representing the Dayton Dragons. Beyond that, you have other facets, including sponsorship.
DL: A lot of minor league franchises, especially at the Single-A level, are putting an increased emphasis on promotions and between-innings entertainment. What is the Dragons approach?
GM: We treat each and every game as a sports entertainment experience. We want the entertainment experience to begin once gates open and continue until the last fan leaves. We want people to leave the game having had a great time, each and every time, regardless if we win or lose. We get to package our entertainment, including our video board, music, contests, skits, mascots, and dance troupes around some of the best minor league talent in the country.
DL: Jay Bruce and Johnny Cueto have worn Dragons uniforms in recent years. Of the players who have not yet reached the major leagues, who has impressed you the most?
GM: There is a great group of former Dragons that you will likely see with the Reds within the next one to two years. Center fielder Drew Stubbs and shortstop Chris Valaika are probably the closest, and right behind them are infielder Todd Frazier and third baseman Juan Francisco. Then, third baseman Neftali Soto is in the next wave. There is also a group of players that came through Dayton that have been slightly under the radar but might also turn out to be outstanding major league players, like outfielder Chris Heisey, pitchers Carlos Fisher and Jordan Smith, and shortstop Zack Cozart. Then you also have a group of former Dragons who have already gotten a little big-league time, like pitcher Daryl Thompson, outfielder Chris Dickerson, infielders Paul Janish and Adam Rosales, and catcher Ryan Hanigan. That’s a lot of players to come through here over the last two or three years.
DL: The Dragons will be hosting a first-of-its-kind exhibition game on April 4. How did the event come together?
GM: The event came out of our annual meetings and discussions with the Reds and was a concept that both sides embraced. We believe it is the first time that a major league team has played a team of their top prospects in a ballpark where many of those players played as minor leaguers. Our fans should enjoy seeing former Dragons now in the majors with the Reds, as well as players still in the minor leagues that they rooted for at Fifth Third Field in past seasons. Players at the Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A levels will make up the Reds Futures Team.
DL: The Dragons have sold out every home game since moving to Dayton. If I’m not a season-ticket holder, how do I get to experience what Dayton Dragons baseball is all about?
GM: We are very sensitive to not lock fans out of the Dragons experience. We have many options for fans that are not season-ticket holders or share season tickets with a group of friends or have them at work. Over 1,000 tickets per game are used as part of some type of group outing, from companies to associations to scouts, little leagues, churches, schools, and more. Our fan-base runs a broad spectrum. We also have our Dragons season-ticket wait list, where we specifically reserve tickets for folks on the wait list each season for purchase. We provide wait-list folks every opportunity to purchase tickets each season. We also have three lawn sections that provide some of the best options for families and walk-up buyers. The lawn ticket is our least expensive ticket, and allows families with children to spread out a blanket and claim their piece of Fifth Third Field lawn for three hours.