GARY | The Dayton Single-A baseball team in Ohio has set national attendance records despite having never won a Midwest League title.
Fifth Third Field has a capacity of 8,200 fans, considered large by A ball standards. By comparison, the RailCats' U.S. Steel Yard seats 6,139 fans and most RailCats who have had their contracts bought by Major League clubs join the organization at the AA level.
The Dragons, a Cincinnati Reds affiliate, have sold out every game since the stadium opened in 2000, with a streak of 972 as of Friday. The Dragons have two division titles in their time in Dayton and have eight seasons of below-.500 records.
In minor league sports, while winning can be a catalyst, the entertainment value of an overall nightly game – from contests on the field to mascots – is what makes a team successful.
"Winning helps get fans excited about the product. It’s not the only thing that brings people out here, but having a winning product helps. Winning two championships and what (manager) Greg (Tagert) has done and the players he’s put out there and making the playoffs just about every year definitely helps, but is it the ultimate?" RailCats president and general manager Kevin Spudic asked. "I think success for us is knowing sponsorship is doing well, group sales is doing well, ticket sales, concessions. Giving them a fun affordable entertainment value is a key for minor league baseball."
The RailCats attendance has grown steadily since U.S. Steel Yard was built in 2003, with the most fans in 2007, the year of their second Northern League championship. The team has brought in fewer than 160,000 over the last three years, though in 2012, when the team had a 50-50 record, the front office saw the best announced attendance of 159,837.
Donald Coffin, professor emeritus of economics at IU Northwest, said sports doesn't have a direct economic impact on an area because the entertainment dollars are spent at a ballpark instead of another entertainment venue in the same area.
"It doesn't matter of 4,000 go to see the RailCats or 5,000 or 6,000," Coffin said. "What happens is they don’t go to the movies or don’t go do something else in Northwest Indiana."
The RailCats have tried to adjust every year to give fans something new to look forward to, Spudic said.
They've changed their group tickets pricing structure, added new concession menu items and adjusted sponsorship pricing for a more a la carte feel.
"We’re always adding some new element, if it’s not the actual stadium, but the atmosphere of the stadium, whether it’s a new concession item or a new party area, something different that catches people’s attention," Spudic said. "You’re not staying cookie cutter year in year out. You’re adding new promotional things on the field, so you’re changing that up or finding new entertaining aspects of the concourse that’s changeable."