Record is fueling push for stadium

Minor league baseball has turned its attention to Dayton, Ohio, this weekend, as the Dayton Dragons celebrate the longest consecutive sellout streak in the history of U.S. professional sports.


Saturday night's game marked the team's 815th sellout in a row at Fifth Third Field - a streak that started when the stadium opened in downtown Dayton in 2000.

While many minor league team executives either envy or applaud the impressive feat, Jeff Eiseman can't help but shake his head and point. The vice president of sales and marketing for Ripken Baseball Group, which owns the Augusta GreenJackets, has been a leading voice in the push for the development of a multipurpose entertainment complex in downtown Augusta that would include a new stadium. He said he sees what has happened in Dayton as an ideal example for what Augusta could have.

"I'm not going to promise we'd sell out every single game," he said. "But we know Augusta has the potential to be like Dayton or Aberdeen (Md.). That's why we're here."

The Dayton Dragons, one of six teams owned by Mandalay Baseball Properties, broke the consecutive sellout record set by the Portland Trail Blazers in a streak that ran from 1977 to 1995.

The Aberdeen IronBirds, one of two other teams owned by Ripken Baseball, currently hold minor league baseball's second-longest sellout streak at more than 300 games.

Eiseman's comparison of Augusta to minor league baseball's top two markets isn't guesswork. The only common thread between Dayton and Aberdeen is Eiseman, who worked for Mandalay and helped train Dayton's sales staff when its sellout streak started. He became the Aberdeen club's first general manager in 2002, and the team has sold out every home game since then.

"When we talk about why something like that occurs, there's a couple of components," he said. "One, you have to have the right people with the right mission. And you have to have the right venue, a place where you can create a magical experience for the fan. Part of the reason we can't do what we want to do (in Augusta) is because we're limited by the venue."

Not everyone in the community agrees.

Carl Keene has been a season ticket holder for more than a decade, and he's missed just one of the GreenJackets' 42 home games this year. He said the "magical experience" is there at Lake Olmstead Stadium.

"I love it. For sports entertainment, you can't find a better gig in town, but people just don't come out," he said. "I would hate to see it move. It's a great experience to come out there and talk to the players and get right down to field level. It's a magical place, if you're patient and you put some thought into it. But people don't know it's here."

Lake Olmstead Stadium has gone 16 years without a major renovation, something Keene said he'd like to see. The stadium ranks 11th in the 14-team South Atlantic League in seating capacity, offers no luxury suites and has limited parking.

Still, the GreenJackets set franchise records in 2008 and 2010 for paid attendance, and this season's numbers include an average of 2,885 fans per game -- eighth in the league.

Eiseman said a new stadium, possibly a downtown structure built along the banks of the Savannah River at the Georgia Golf and Gardens property, would help stir more excitement.

"We want to take it to a level people in Augusta haven't even imagined," he said. "I think we can put ingredients together and have the community embrace it."

T he Augusta Commission finally embraced the idea of pursuing the possibilities in June when commissioners voted 6-3-1 to "develop a transaction plan" concerning the stadium issue, and city administrator Fred Russell said he is exploring financing options.

The land is still owned by the state and has yet to be put up for auction, which the Properties Commission intends to do at a starting price tag of $2.8 million. Acquiring the land and funding the project remain obstacles, and the idea itself hasn't seen much progress since it was introduced almost five years ago.

The slow process has recently pushed the GreenJackets and Ripken Baseball to entertain the idea of moving to a different location within the Augusta market. Eiseman isn't ready to give up on the downtown property.

"In an ideal world, downtown is it. Anytime you can bring half a million people into an area, you are going to have an impact on that area," he said. "The central business district of Augusta misses that anchor to draw that many people. If not, it can still be done (elsewhere) but downtown won't necessarily benefit."

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