Dragons look ahead after surviving COVID, canceled season

Kenny York paints the walkway in the stands at Day Air Ballpark Wednesday May 5, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Caption
Kenny York paints the walkway in the stands at Day Air Ballpark Wednesday May 5, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Millions in federal assistance helped minor league team weather ongoing pandemic.

At times during the recent pandemic-plagued months, Robert Murphy, president of the Dayton Dragons, would pause on the suite level of Day Air Credit Union Ballpark, taking in the big photos of a packed stadium, scenes from some of the Dragons’ nearly 1,400 sold-out games.

“You would just stop and look at it – and it was so foreign, it was so different from the life we were living at that moment in time,” Murphy recalled. “I felt that that really was the scary part of all of this.”

“Where was this going to go?” he wondered. “How much worse was this going to get before we can come back?”

At 7:05 p.m. Tuesday, when the Dragons take the field for their home opener against the Lansing Lugnuts, the team and its fans will indeed be back, thanks in large part to millions in federal assistance programs – but the stadium won’t be packed.

Dragon field crews from left, Emmett Wagner, Brian Greene and Britt Caudill replace the logo on the dugout at Day Air Field Wednesday May 5, 2021.
Caption
Dragon field crews from left, Emmett Wagner, Brian Greene and Britt Caudill replace the logo on the dugout at Day Air Field Wednesday May 5, 2021.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Attendance capacity at the stadium will be cut by some 70%, with many seats tied off to make social distancing between pods of seats possible. Touchless points of sale will be a mainstay. Fans will be expected to wear face coverings and remain seated as much as possible.

Despite the uncertainty of the past year-plus, Murphy said he was confident the organization would make it.

“It’s like, plan the work and work the plan,” said Murphy, who has been the team’s president since 2000. “The plan should work if we follow it.”

Getting there was never going to be easy, though.

Working the plan

The journey to Tuesday’s home opener took the support of stalwart fans and a few crucial financial tools.

When the pandemic first truly sunk its claws into the population domestically in early March 2020, the Dragons were fully into planning — and spending — for what they thought would be their 2020 season.

“We are using our cash from our seasonal business cycle in those three quarters leading up to the second quarter (of 2020), which is when our season begins,” Murphy said. “As you can imagine, when we got to the point of March 12 (last year), we had already depleted our normal cash reserves, anticipating that we would begin generating cash when we started putting people in the ballpark.”

“There was no way of knowing it was going to last,” he added. “In the very beginning, remember, it was two weeks. We need 15 days.”

Government orders in March 2020 and beyond made clear no team was going to put people in ballparks. Major League Baseball eventually opened a compressed season without fans in the seats; minor league baseball canceled its season altogether.

Andy Ross uses a laser to grade Day Air Ballpark Wednesday May 5, 2021. The home opener is Tuesday May 11, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Caption
Andy Ross uses a laser to grade Day Air Ballpark Wednesday May 5, 2021. The home opener is Tuesday May 11, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

The Dragons initiated two rounds of staff furloughs while maintaining benefits for them in the hope staffers would return, Murphy said.

The ballpark needed to be maintained, with different parts of the stadium isolated and winterized.

“In any kind of crisis like this, the most important thing is cash,” Murphy said. “You have to conserve capital. That was our strategy.”

That strategy involved seizing opportunities. According to Federal Reserve data, team owner Palisades Arcadia Baseball LLC received a $4 million Main Street loan last November. Aimed at small and middle-sized businesses, the Treasury Department program offered five-year loans to businesses and nonprofits with deferred principal and interest payments.

Also last November, the team received $395,000 total in CARES Act funds from the city of Dayton and Montgomery County government.

Plexiglass dividers are set-up at the concession stand at Day Air Ballpark. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Caption
Plexiglass dividers are set-up at the concession stand at Day Air Ballpark. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Palisades also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $865,997 in February 2021, according to program data. Murphy said the team secured a similar amount in the program’s first round last year.

The PPP money did for the Dragons what it did for thousands of other small businesses across the nation: allowed them to retain employees and cover business expenses.

And those expenses continued, even though normal revenue had ceased.

The team enjoyed the timely forbearance of a number of season-ticket holders who did not ask for a cash refund after the 2020 season was canceled.

Early in August last year, the team notified season-ticket holders of a trio of options for recovery in the aftermath of the canceled season. The team told fans they could choose to apply half of their season deposit to 2021 and the other half to the 2022 season.

A second option: move the deposit to 2021 as paid-up season tickets.

A third option was request a refund. That was the most difficult option for what was then a cash-starved team, Murphy told the Dayton Daily News last September.

But he was encouraged by the fans’ response.

By September, only 10% of fans had sought a cash refund. Others agreed to delay full repayment or demonstrated flexibility in other ways. And no corporate partners sought a refund.

The result for Murphy was “an amazing sense of gratitude.”

“A lot of the comments we received were along the lines of, ‘You guys have done such great work. You guys have been so important to this community. We need to support you now,’” he recalled.

Dayton Dragon's opening day is Tuesday May 11, 2021.
Caption
Dayton Dragon's opening day is Tuesday May 11, 2021.

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Today, holders of season tickets are back in gratifying numbers.

“We actually had a greater return coming out of the pandemic, percentage-wise, of season-ticket holders than we did going from ’19 to ’20,” Murphy said. “Going from ’20 to ’21, we actually had a higher season ticket renewal rate.”

Fans and businesses welcome the Dragons back

The organization has worked hard “to create this love affair between this team and this community,” Murphy said.

That love affair is especially strong for Brixx Ice Co., located at Sears and East First streets, 600 feet from home plate.

“We are so beholden to the Dragons, being in this proximity,” said Chris Bhai, general manager of Brixx, which has operated for 14 years. “Really, it’s almost been two years since we’ve had them.”

“How do you survive with nothing going on over there,” he added. “It’s been a real challenge.”

Jennifer Dietrich, the executive who oversees both Lock 27 Brewing locations, including the Delco Lofts site just outside the ballpark, said life without the Dragons hasn’t been fun.

“With this coming back, it’s going to be huge for us,” she said. “Just because we’ve missed the business and the businesses around here anyways. It’s going to feel a little bit more normal for everyone. It’s going to give people a reason to come back down here.”

“People are ready to start venturing out,” she said.

Jonathan Maurer is president of MSM Sports Inc. in Butler County’s West Chester Twp. He advises and represents athletes and has been a season-ticket holder since before the ballpark was built.

“It’s my getaway with my family,” Maurer said. “My kids were just born, and now they’re all in college. I almost go there just to be a dad and to have fun.”

Not having Dragons baseball last year was strange, he said.

“We all went through so much, and some are still going through it,” he said. “To not be able to just walk in the door, see the employees, have the snacks, sit on the grass or sit behind home plate … this is just a great family fun, awesome experience.”

Natalie Dunlevey, president of Oakwood’s National Processing Solutions, has five suites each season at the ballpark.

The Dragons are a client of Dunlevey’s company, as is Day Air Credit Union.

“I use the suites to entertain clients,” Dunlevey said. “And they miss it. In fact, some folks have asked, ‘How are you doing the suites again? Are we going to be able to use the suites this year?’ And it looks like we will.”

“It’s a way to connect with people again,” she added. “It’s a way to thank people for their business. It’s a way to just entertain people, to just feel like it’s summer again.”