Dayton, Ohio, has quietly been a great sports town. In addition to two NCAA Division I universities, this small city an hour north of Cincinnati has strong recent histories with minor league hockey and baseball. The Dayton Dragons (Single-A baseball) currently hold a sellout streak (sitting at 913 games) that is the longest in all of professional sports. This kind of fan support for minor league sports, as well as the popularity of youth soccer in the area, are the types of things that appealed to the founders of the Dayton Dutch Lions.
The club, who have a partnership with Dutch top-flight Eredivisie club FC Twente, arrived in Dayton in 2009, as a member of the United Soccer Leagues' Premier Development League, the fourth division of the American soccer pyramid. A jump to USL Pro, the third division, came for the 2011 season.
The lack of a soccer-specific stadium in Dayton has left the Dutch Lions at a disadvantage in the Dayton market. The team has played at a variety of high school stadiums in the area which, while cost-effective, can hinder attempts to build a soccer atmosphere, especially as most are of a multipurpose nature and feature running tracks that push seating further away. The lack of alcohol sales eliminates another potential revenue stream. Last season saw the team move games between three high school venues, an experiment that could be confusing to even the most loyal Dutch Lions supporters.
Major League Soccer and the other leagues in the U.S. and Canada have shown that featuring the sport in a soccer-appropriate venue can help cultivate a more loyal fan base, while also giving clubs access to more revenue streams and the opportunity to choose prime dates for events, rather than being a tenant in someone else's venue. Dutch Lions' co-owner/president Mike Mossel shared his thoughts on the team's stadium issues and what the the club is planning for the future.
Stadium Journey (SJ): What was the philosophy around using 3 different venues last season?
Mike Mossel (MM): The reason we went with multiple locations was twofold: One, to market the team in a new area to get more/new fans. Two, to see what the attendance would be in the various locations.
SJ: Did the setup lead to any interesting information the club can use to market the team? (where the team's fans are located or where they were less likely to travel?)
MM: We noticed we got a lot more publicity in Springboro (affluent suburb 20 minutes south of Dayton) and Beavercreek (area's second-largest suburb, population-wise) to people that did not even know about the team. Attendance-wise, there was not a big difference.
SJ: What was appealing about Beavercreek High School's stadium, and how long do you expect the team to be stationed there for?
MM: We made the decision to play all our games there for this season. What is appealing is the location (easy to reach), environment, and the people at the school that my staff have to work with. How long we will stay there depends on how fast we can build our own stadium.
SJ: The Dragons have been a success in Dayton, due in part to a tradition of baseball in the area on top of the game experience at Fifth Third Field. Has the club seen any challenges in selling pro soccer to the area, and what does the team have planned this year to promote the 2013 season?
MM: I believe that without a stadium, it will be hard to get a decent fan base. Other issues are the local press and the local soccer clubs. You can ask yourself, how many fans the Dragons would get playing at a high school venue? The stadium is a destination itself and they do an excellent job in creating family entertainment. We scheduled one game in their stadium last year and we pre-sold 4,000 tickets. Unfortunately, the game was cancelled due to hail storms damaging the field. That's why I have been exploring options to build a stadium from the moment we started.
As far as the press, we got a lot of attention from the Dayton Daily News in our first year, and we averaged 1,200 fans per game, whereas we now play in a higher division, but only average around 800 with a late season upswing last season that saw crowds between 1,000 and 1,200.
Lastly, the local (youth) teams don't always support us because we also have a youth academy, and they see us as a potential threat. I believe a stadium and good press will give us 3-4,000 fans per game. This year, we are putting more effort into ticket sales, building a closer relationship with the press, and, most of all, fielding a quality team. The U.S. Open Cup success from last year (a run that included an upset win over MLS' Columbus Crew on their way to the fifth round of the competition) and in the second half of the season (4-5-3 record) certainly gave a boost to attendance.
SJ: With Major League Soccer aligning itself with the USL by adding reserve teams and, in some cases, affiliation agreements between established teams, do you see any direct benefit to the Dutch Lions?
MM: We'll get two games against the Columbus Crew reserves (home & away), which is good for the fans. In the near future I would like to see a USL Pro division with the reserve sides from Columbus, Chicago Fire, and Toronto FC, in addition to Rochester and Pittsburgh, and us. The question is how much effort the reserve teams will put in on and off the field. At this point, I think the partnership between MLS and USL Pro is good and brings credibility to the league.
SJ: The plan for the soccer complex partnership with West Carrollton Schools (a multi-field complex for DDL's youth teams, plus an eventual rehab of the main stadium) was announced back in late 2011, but there haven't been many updates to the public since. Can you relay any news related to if that project is still being planned, or has the club moved on? What is the timeline for signing a deal for a permanent stadium for the Dutch Lions?
MM: The two grass fields were supposed to be ready, but we are not happy with the results, so the construction company needs to redo the top surface. This means we will try to have them ready for the fall. As far as the (high school's) stadium, we are still looking to put a new synthetic surface in. It's not an easy task to find investors to put money into a school property, but I can see this happening in the coming years.
As far as a permanent soccer-specific stadium, I can only share we are very close to a unique soccer stadium. In projects of this scale, it takes a little longer than you would want.
SJ: Dayton has a good number of sports venues for a city of its size. What features would the club like to see in a new stadium, and what sports/events would the facility look to host in addition to soccer. Might the team look to form a stadium partnership with another school/university in the area? What do you feel would be an appropriate capacity for a stadium in Dayton? Might there be any Dutch-specific elements or traditions you'd like to bring to a new facility?
MM: I think Dayton has some nice facilities with the University of Dayton (UD Arena), Wright State (Nutter Center), and of course the Dragons. However, there's not many soccer-specific venues, despite being the area's biggest sport as far as active players. Our project is something that is like no other, based on some European stadiums, and will for sure give Dayton national attention. I cannot say too much more, besides that it will have about 6,000 covered seats.
SJ: I understand if you can't divulge exactly where the team wants to locate but, ideally, which stadium setup would you prefer: A downtown facility with high visibility and bars/restaurants nearby for fans (like the USL's Pittsburgh Riverhounds' 3,500-seat Highmark Stadium), or a suburban location with a main stadium as well as youth fields are all in the same complex?
MM: Again, at this point I cannot comment since we are in conversation with two locations.
The prospect of a 6,000-seat venue is intriguing. It would fill a void in the Dayton market and would be an appropriate size for lower-division soccer. As the team has jumped around different local venues from season to season, the long-term vision of a soccer-specific stadium for the Dutch Lions might be of some comfort to Dutch Lions fans, with a hint of possible long-term stability for the club. Now Mossel just has to find someone to pay for it.
For context, current lower division soccer venues in range of that capacity include Atlanta Silverbacks Park, the Charleston Battery's Blackbaud Stadium, and the Carolina Railhawks' WakeMed Soccer Park (prior to its recent expansion to 10,000).
We at Stadium Journey thank Mike for his time and wish the Dutch Lions the best of luck for both the 2013 season and in their search for a permanent home. Dayton kicks off its home schedule at Miami Valley Hospital Stadium on April 20 against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. For ticket information, check the DDL website.