Dayton, Ohio, is inextricably linked with the history of aviation. The city was home to Orville (who was born there) and Wilbur Wright, who are credited with inventing manned flight. (They weren’t the first to build a machine that could fly, but they were the first to invent a machine that could fly and also be steered, and that seems like a big deal.) Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park is found there, and some of the city’s sports teams—The University of Dayton Flyers, the Universal Basketball Association’s Dayton Air Strikers, and the erstwhile Dayton Bombers of the ECHL—reflect Dayton’s connection to the industry.
And there’s another Dayton team that has a connection to flying.
“The history of the Dayton area is so rife with aviation themes,” said Eric Deutsch, executive vice president of the Dayton Dragons, single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. “We kind of went a different direction to change it up a little bit. Dragons are fun. They’re a mythological creature.”
So Dayton is all about flying and dragons fly, but there are reasons beyond a connection to aviation that the Dragons chose their name. For one, Deutsch explained, the team wanted to stand out from the crowd a bit. “Dragons had not been found in a lot of other teams in our sports landscape across North America,” he said. “It was a different name.”
The Dragons stand out particularly because they play in the Midwest League, where many of the other teams’ identities are based on local industry or lore, like the Lansing Lugnuts, Cedar Rapids Kernels, and Clinton LumberKings, to name a few. It’s easy to take note of a fantastical creature, specifically one that’s artfully drawn rather than cartoonish, when they’re playing against the Fort Wayne TinCaps or the Quad Cities River Bandits.
While the name Dragons is not terribly common, one of the reasons for it can be found throughout sports. “The alliteration of the letter D worked out very nicely,” Deutsch said.
The Dragons’ name was chosen by the team’s ownership group—not by a name-the-team contest, as is so often the case with minor league baseball teams. As the team prepared to launch before the 2000 season (the Chinese year of the Dragon, coincidentally), time was running out to get all of the appropriate paperwork and approvals processed.
“Since we were on such a time crunch, the owners thought it might be good to get a name selected by themselves instead of a submit a name of the team process that the community would normally participate in,” Deutsch said, “just to make sure that they had things ready to go with logos, marks, registration, uniforms, hat designs, etc., getting everything up on the short time frame.”
However, in order to let fans participate in the process, the team came up with a creative solution after the fact. “When we did finally formally announce that baseball was to come to Dayton, we had a ‘Guess the Name of the Team’ contest for the fans to try to guess the name of the team that had been selected,” Deutsch said.
For their logo, the Dragons turned to designer Terry Smith of Terry Smith Creations (TSC), a firm responsible for a number of sports logos, most notably the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. TSC’s website features a red version of the identity, one of the many colors the team considered before committing whole-heartedly to green.
While the Dragons’ logo has been consistent since the team’s inception, featuring a three-quarter angle view of the dragon, the team did contract with Smith to create a front-facing version of the dragon, which is used on merchandise and on some the team’s communications.
“We’ve kept our standard brand and marks and logos similar,” Deutsch said, “but for other art pieces, ticket collaterals, merchandise, we’re able to create some new looks from the original mark that have become very popular and very cool.”
Smith also designed a custom typeface—one that looks like it could be featured on the cover of a fantasy novel as easily as it is on a minor league baseball team’s jersey. The typeface is used in all of the team’s branded items, from uniform numbers to the team’s in-stadium store, the Dragon’s Den.
“It was really kind of neat that, not only did we have that cap logo, the team-branded logo, the marks, the uniforms, we also had our own numbers and alphabet to use in terms of branding,” Deutsch said.
When they debuted more than a decade and a half ago, there was no way the team could have known that dragons would be front and center on the cultural landscape, specifically with the popularity of Game of Thrones. But the team has never tried to play off the dragons of literature or gaming or other aspects of culture.
“There are just so many out there, from mythical cartoon lore to Game of Thrones to Dungeons and Dragons to the Chinese dragons, the year of the dragon on the Chinese calendar,” Deutsch said. “They’ve come up but they’ve never really stuck. We’ve had our own brand and we’ve been consistent on the use and the marking of it. So I think in our community, the Dayton Dragon has stuck in regard to what people think about in terms of baseball and the Dragons.”
Dragons merchandise has been a hot commodity since the team debuted, in part because they have an attractive, distinct identity, and in part because the Dragons hold the record for consecutive sellouts by a professional sports team in North America. The Dragons have sold out every game in their history—a streak that passed the 1,000 mark last season—and once again this year they appeared on the list of Minor League Baseball’s top 25 teams in terms of merchandise sales. Dayton’s path to success has been different from other minor league baseball teams’, but a serious, artful logo and a fiercely loyal fan base have made the Dragons one of the most popular brands in the minors.