Buckle in, because I have a sports problem. No, actually, Dayton has a sports problem. In my opinion, a big one. Let me explain.
Several months ago, I recall hearing in the office and maybe on social about some local folks going to a hockey game… in Columbus and Cincinnati. Over the last few weeks, I see posts all over social media of the re-birth of arena football… in Columbus. Over the last few weeks, I went on twitter and see tweet after tweet from supporters of the two big soccer clubs… in Cincinnati and Columbus. A couple weeks ago, I caught up with results from a futsal club (indoor soccer on a basketball court)… from Columbus. Finally, and this triggered me slightly, not long after that, I saw a tweet from the Dayton Dutch Lions congratulating several of their players for their participation on national championship indoor (walled) soccer teams… on a team from Cincinnati.
Notice anything missing in that last paragraph? Dayton! Apart from mentioning the Dutch Lions, there’s NOTHING from Dayton. What does Dayton have apart from the Dragons to hang its hat on in the world of professional sports? A big fat nothing. That number only gets marginally bigger when you include semi-pro sports. This is my frustration currently with Dayton. For a city where some folk claim that Dayton is a great sports town, they certainly don’t have a whole lot to show for it. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
I recall 14 years ago, back in 2005, Dayton virtually had it all. Baseball, the Dragons had you covered. Arena Football? The Dayton Warbirds were waiting for you. Basketball? Say hello to the Dayton Jets. Hockey? The Dayton Bombers had your hookup. Soccer? Well, you were on your own on that one. Dayton had a team to satisfy almost any sports fan’s thirst!
Today? The Dragons are still around, the Dutch Lions are here on the pitch. And… that’s it. Contrast that to what’s happening in Cincinnati and Columbus. Those cities have virtually every team of every type to satisy every sports junkie’s need. And that’s not good for the Dayton sports fan. It’s also not good for Dayton as a city. Why? And how did this happen?
Back in 2005, I recall the Dayton Daily News put out an article about all the teams the city had, and why Dayton was such a hotbed for sports at the time. One of the big points they made was that they had the facilities needed to support such teams. Sadly, thanks to hindsight, history, and a little bit of geography, that is no longer the case. In fact, you can wonder if it ever really was the case. Dayton simply doesn’t have the facilities to host most types of minor league sports enjoyed by its peers in Toledo, Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo, and even Cincinnati to an extent.
Fifth Thrid Field is a first-class facility, no doubt about that. However, it is strictly a baseball stadium. And while it is not unheard of for pro soccer teams to play in such venues (New York City FC in MLS, for example), it is far from ideal, and furthermore, there is no guarantee that Dragons’ ownership would allow such a club to do so. If I recall, the Dayton Dutch Lions did attempt to hold one of their regular season matches at Fifth Third in 2012, but after a period of rain, and subsequent concerns over the condition of the field afterwards, the match was re-located back to their then home at Bellbrook High School. So, the stadium is good for baseball, but pretty much bad for everything else.
The University of Dayton Arena is also a first-class facility, which, as of this writing, is set to begin the phase three of their 72 million dollar renovation. The arena has hosted the NCAA’s First Four every year since its inception, as well as its predecessor, the opening round game. And, of course, their highly successful mens’ basketball and ever-growing womens’ basketball programs. However, the arena was specifically designed for basketball, with seating firmly in place in concrete on three sides. There is no way at all that any sport other than basketball can be played at the arena. Even with that, during the basketball season, the arena is virtually off limits to non-university events, and even there, I imagine renting the arena costs a pretty penny. Finally, UD Arena doesn’t really have a history of hosting minor league sports. The only non-basketball events I recall being held there are circus events, winterguard competitions, and some concerts in the arena’s older days. So that venue is for all intents and purposes out for minor league junkies.
Wright State University’s Nutter Center would seem like the obvious winner as the perfect venue for a local minor league sports home, and not for no reason. A handful of teams have called the Nutter Center home in its lifetime. Ice hockey, indoor football, minor-league basketball, and even womens’ roller derby have graced the floor of the Nutter Center in its time. Unfortunately, the last time any team regularly graced the Fairborn arena was in 2009, the year the Dayton Bombers suspended operations. The arena has been vacant as a minor league home for almost 10 years as of this writing. Given its history, why is the Nutter Center no longer seen as the perfect venue for indoor minor league sports in Dayton?
In my opinion, there are two reasons. First, the Nutter Center is too far away from Downtown Dayton. In cities like Toledo, Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo, and others, their arenas are a prominent part of the downtown scene. Those facilities are truly part of the city. It’s where the people are, either at home or at work. Plenty to do before and after the game. Though given the Nutter Center’s history, and given that another minor league staple, Hara Arena, is nowhere near downtown, you could make an argument that distance from downtown is a weak reason. What’s isn’t weak, though, is the second, and in my opinion, the biggest reason: cost.
I recall back in 2009 after the Bombers had announced that they were suspending operations that their then-owner, Costa Papista, said in a season-ticket holder meeting that the rate to lease the Nutter Center for hockey was in the area of $10,000 a game. A quick glance at their current promoters’ guide has seen that figure skyrocket to $25,000 for a full arena setup, plus other expenses. I tried to find similar rates for other venues, and I was only able to find a rate of $2,500 vs. a cut of ticket sales for the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, IN, and a rate of $3,500 vs a cut of ticket sales for WesBanco Arena in Wheeling, West Virginia. What also leads me to believe that cost is the biggest reason is that since 2009, the only venue that has ever hosted professional hockey (and arena football) in Dayton was Hara Arena, until its closure in 2016. Speaking of Hara, if memory serves me right, Papista also said at the time that the rate per game at Hara Arena was around $5,000 at the time, while that at Hobart Arena in Troy was $3,000-3,500. Over the cost of an entire season, it’s not hard to see what drove further teams away from Nutter. Even if Nutter’s $25k per event number could be negotiated down a bit, it’s still REALLY high up there compared to that of other ECHL arenas. Basically, Nutter seems happy to price themselves out of the minor league market.
As an aside, the average attendance for the Dayton Bombers in their final year (2008-09) was 3679 according to Wikipedia. The team’s successor, the Dayton Gems (who played at Hara Arena), averaged 2228 in their final season (2011-12, up from 1280 and 1877 in their 09-10 and 10-11 seasons). So, despite an increase in all three seasons, their average annual attendance was still less than every season of the Dayton Bombers, both at Hara and (mostly) at Nutter. This lends some credence to the theory that closer to downtown is better.
So what else is there that may be both affordable and near downtown that may or may not be obvious? Outdoors, there’s Welcome Stadium, which did host the Dayton Dynamo outdoor club for one season in 2016, though this was a temporary home while their 2017 home, Roger Glass Stadium, was being built. Despite having a supposed capacity of 10,000, Welcome Stadium clearly shows its age. Apart from it’s very nice press box (a requirement for NCAA Division 1 football) the stadium is nowhere close to a professional-grade venue, and this doesn’t look to change any time soon.
There is also, staying outdoors, Roger Glass Stadium. This is a very nice and cozy facility, able to seat 2,150. What separates this stadium from most others is that it is owned by Chaminade-Julienne, a private school. Therefore, the possibility exists for alcohol to be served at the stadium. And it did, for the Dynamo’s 2017 season. But, obtaining a liquor license is not a cheap endeavor, and it may not be as simple as piggybacking off of whatever licence CJ may or may not have. But, unless either another semi-pro club shows up or the Dutch Lions decide to relocate, this venue may never get another chance to flex its muscles beyond high school. Plus, given that it is, after all, a high school venue, it doesn’t scream professionalism, despite the fact that other clubs use high school or similar stadiums with great success.
Going indoors, there really isn’t anything available inside or outside downtown that can host true professional hockey. There had been rumors and hype over the years about a facility being built in Austin Landing (which never materialized), and about the Bombers’ being involved with building a facility downtown (also never came to be). The current ice rinks in the area barely seat more than a few hundred. So unless a new venue comes up or the Nutter Center changes its tune, we may never see professional hockey return to Dayton.
Beyond hockey, the only indoor venue downtown that has hosted anything noteworthy recently is the Dayton Convention Center. This venue has hosted Gem City Roller Derby bouts for the last year or so (however, GCRD only has one bout scheduled for DCC in 2019, the rest are at Orbit Fun Center in Huber Heights). Additionally, the original Dayton Dynamo held their final indoor seasons in the mid 90s at the Dayton Convention Center as well. It’s also hosted a handful of MMA cards in recent history.
There is also Trent Arena, which hosted the majority of one professional basketball team’s games for one season. But again, it’s a high school venue hosting a professional sports team. While there are and have been G-League teams with lesser venues that Trent, it’s still a high school venue.
All the while this is happening, folks are instead going to Columbus and Cincinnati to get their fix of professional, and in some cases, semi-professional sports. It trains Daytonians to believe that you HAVE to go outside of Dayton to get a fix of professional sports. Even with the extremely niche sport of indoor soccer, you can’t get that in Dayton. And it’s just as bad, if not worse, for the sports that already call Dayton home, such as baseball and soccer. Folks believe that they shouldn’t bother to support the teams in their own back yard because there’s a “better” team 50-60 miles away. That’s time and money that could have been spent in Dayton going instead to Cincinnati and Columbus. This is why, in my personal opinion, Cincinnati and Columbus both being so close to Dayton is not a blessing, but a curse for the local sports fan.
I wish there was a happier way to close this long rant. I just REALLY hate the idea that Cincinnati and Columbus are the only cities around that can have great sports experiences like the ones above, and Dayton gets left behind. What do you think Dayton needs to do to rise back to it’s previous minor league glory?