Everyone knows the clichés about first impressions. They last a lifetime, the first few seconds define a relationship, etc. But has anyone heard about using bubbles to make a second first impression?
Bubbles were the item of choice for the new-look, “new ballgame” Akron Aeros on their Opening Day game on Thursday night. The glitz and glamour of the changes to Canal Park in downtown Akron combined with a reinvigorated emphasis on fan experience.
For 2013’s first game, the fan experience mantra began with bubbles. As fans walked into any of the ballpark gates, they were pummeled with thousands and thousands of floating bubbles. It was the first touch that new owner Ken Babby hopes sparks a new era of Aeros ball.
“Welcome to a brand new era of Akron Aeros baseball,” he said to fans before the game. “We can’t wait to give you years and years of great experiences. Welcome home and let’s get the game started.”
But in order to tell the real story of Thursday’s opening crowd of 6,273, it’s necessary to share all the work and all the details of a busy offseason in Akron.
Last October, 33-year-old Ken Baby officially assumed the ownership of the Akron Aeros franchise. The son of long-time NBA agent and current Phoenix Suns executive Lon Babby, Ken had spent over a decade professionally at the Washington Post. But ever since he was little, he had obsessed over sports fan experiences and dreamed of owning a minor league team.
This goal then finally came true – with no monetary assistance from his famous dad – by purchasing the Akron club from the Agganis family. Mike and Greg Agganis had owned the squad since its days as the Lynn Sailors in 1982, through the Canton years from 1989-1996 and then in Akron since 1997.
Terms of the overall sale between Babby and the Agganis family have never been disclosed. But in the terms of Babby’s new 25-year lease with the City of Akron, he promised to provide $3.5 million in improvements to Canal Park through the team’s lease payments.
Step one: Securing a $1.65 million state-of-the-art scoreboard to hang in right-center field. Unofficially one of the five largest in Minor League Baseball, the 26’x68’ screen plus digital line score board includes a total of 1,990 square feet of LED screen.
Thrown in along with the scoreboard upgrade was a brand-new digital ribbon board in left-center field. The 6’x54’ board adds to the overall “wow” factor for any returning fan, giving the Aeros one of the top technological facilities in the minors.
“The videoboard means different things to different people,” Babby said in explaining the different sets of fans that might be attracted to it. “I don’t think I understood this when I bought it, but now I’m starting to get it now. It’s obviously just a piece of technology, but depending upon who you are it might appeal to you in different ways.”
During Opening Day, welcomes on the scoreboard included comedian Lewis Black, Subway celebrity Jared Fogel, University of Akron administrator Jim Tressel, Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski and Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. Loads of other shiny new graphics – including a game called Luigi’s pizza plinko in the fourth – treated fans throughout the game.
On Saturday, the board began displaying replays, accurate pitch speeds and more. It’s a work in progress yet something that Babby feels can enrich the experience for both hard-core and casual baseball fans.
But just as the lease stated, there are more capital improvements than just a new scoreboard.
As the bulk of the crowd wandered around the concourse Thursday night, they saw the new concession stand signs featuring all sorts of new, local foods. They also saw the new ads sprayed along the outfield wall, highlighted by a brand new Miller Lite sign in center.
Per Babby, there also was a more thorough cleaning of the concourse than anything that had taken place since ’97. Paint was applied where needed and it should look more pleasant and welcoming than in the past.
Walking up to the suite level, which also includes the press box, there are all-new Akron baseball murals painted everywhere. The murals were a special new treat for the exclusive fans and featured famous moments in the city’s long history with baseball, including the Aeros. New carpets, new furniture and new flat-screen TVs also were featured in these suites.
“We wanted to pay homage to the rich history of baseball in Akron, which existed long before the Aeros or even the team in Canton,” Babby said about the murals. “We will continue to honor it too. We believe we’re stewards of the baseball experience in Akron.”
By 2014’s Opening Day, many more improvements – especially focused on the fan experience – are set to hit Canal Park. Babby said two things to potentially expect are a restaurant to fill the currently vacant facility in right field and several new group seating options. More information will be released in the coming year. But overall, all of this is scheduled in an effort to spark up Aeros attendance, something that’s trended in the wrong direction for the bulk of the last eight years.
In the baseball world, Opening Day is the quintessential experience. Filled with fanfare and with both rosters lining up along the baselines, it’s always a treat and it’s always a show. For Babby’s Opening Day in Akron, there was just a bit more – as to be expected.
The minors are usually promotions-heavy to excite fans and make families constantly happy. Thursday’s promotions experience at Canal Park then actively showcased the “It’s A Whole New Ballgame” motto that the team has installed for the season. Babby said the goal is to fill the 3-hour window of a baseball game with more fun and excitement than took place in the past in Akron.
“No one in our organization has claimed we’ve invented anything,” he said about fan experience. “What we’re just trying to claim is that bringing this model to Akron will be a better value for fans and really enrich the experience.”
Along with the usual Opening Day antics, a pre-game Main Street Festival took place downtown from 4-6 p.m. Face-painters, stilt-walkers, jugglers, balloon artists and a roving fire-breather wandered up and down. Young fans could bounce around in an inflated area, while older fans could enjoy some beer in a roped-off section too.
Inside the stadium, Cleveland Indians drummer John Adams engaged fans and posed for pictures. On the field 20 minutes before gametime, the team’s two mascots, Orbit the space-cat and Homer the pigeon, were driven onto the field on a FedEx truck. Their arrival with balloons and noisemakers then kick-started the Aeros’ ring ceremony.
Since Akron indeed won the 2012 Eastern League championship, the team’s tuxedo-wearing radio broadcaster Jim Clarke emceed the much-hyped ceremony. Owner Babby shook hands with and presented rings to all 16 of the returning players who won the title last season.
After the rings, the Aeros players spread back out. Coming from the left-field foul pole, the pitchers were high-fived by fans as they made their way down the third base line. Then, coming from the center field opening, Corvettes brought in the home team’s starting lineup. It was a extravagant return.
Finally, following the anthem and first pitches, two fellows parachuted onto the field. It was new excitement one after another after another.
These sorts of fan-oriented activities are likely to be the norm for Canal Park and the Aeros in 2013 and beyond. Opening Day’s antics were just Game 1 in an entire 71-game revitalized promotional schedule, as led by General Manager Jim Pfander and new Promotions Director Christina Shisler.
“I am extremely excited about the promotional schedule we created for the upcoming 2013 season!” Shisler said in the promo calendar press release. “We focused on having something for everyone. No matter their area of interest, they will find a promotion to make them want to come to a ballgame at Canal Park!”
Some of the season highlights: 20 firework nights, Thirsty Thursdays with $1 12-oz soda and beer, Celebrity Saturdays, Family FUNdays on Sundays and much, much more. There’s midget wrestling, a Vegan Iron Chef competition, A Tribute to National Garlic Day, a Roger Dorn snow globe giveaway and just about anything else you could possibly imagine.
The team will have $2 hot dogs every day all season. They unveiled a new 50/50 raffle partnership with Habitat for Humanity on Friday. They also collaborated with the Akron Beacon Journal and six local radio stations1 for even more partnerships each day.
Oh, and by the way, Monday night’s 6:35 p.m. game at Canal Park is Hot Tub Party night. It supposedly includes an opportunity for select fans to watch the game from a hot tub. It sounds fantastic. And that’s how the minor leagues should be.
On the field in 2013, new Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez hopes to keep up the momentum of his surprising Puerto Rico team’s run in the World Baseball Classic. A former player and the first Puerto Rican to manage in the big leagues2, Rodriguez managed Cleveland’s High-A Carolina last season.
Some of the top prospects for Akron include the following: SS Ronny Rodriguez, RHP Danny Salazar, 2B Jose Ramirez, 1B/DH Jesus Aguilar, LHP T.J. House and 1B/DH Chun Chen. They are an experienced club with a lot of returning talent, so they should contend again for a potential fifth EL title in just 11 seasons.
But as Babby agreed, minor league baseball success for a new front office doesn’t show up in balls or strikes, wins or losses. It comes down to the fans and it comes down to attendance. It relates to long-term community response and engagement with a fan base.
So how does 2013’s Aeros Opening Day compare to the last few years and the overall trends?
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As one can tell, the first 2013 attendance result is not too shabby historically3. The team then reported 2,495 and 1,702 on Friday and Saturday. But most notably, an Opening Day doesn’t generally show a whole lot. Obviously, in ’05 through ’07 when season average attendance was as high as ever in Akron, the first game featured huge crowds. Since then, attendance has dropped overall and the openers haven’t looked as great.
In the end, it’s the rest of April that matters more – and that’s been more depressing of late. The Aeros will do their best with intriguing promotions and more fireworks and early start times to attract more fans. Group sales also will be a huge trigger for early success.
Babby said the team’s goal for 2013 and in the future is to establish the Aeros as the best option for family entertainment in Northeast Ohio. He said that customers get to choose, as shown by attendance, whether they believe that’s the case. But he shared that this year, and especially this April, might not necessarily show a huge increase in attendance just yet. It’s the ultimate goal that matters.
A cold week leading up to 2013’s Opening Day likely didn’t help the Aeros early efforts. But overall, with the excitement of the visual improvements and the reinvograted activities for fans, Babby hopes the team’s new front office made a strong first impression.
“What started out as just my dream, really was taken over by the tremendous energy from our staff and how excited they were,” Babby said about Opening Day. “I really ended up having a very small role. But it was a wonderful day, a day that as long as I live I will never forget. I didn’t sleep a wink that night before and it’s still surreal.”
Photo: @dadzingers on Twitter
Disclaimer: I worked in the media relations department of the Akron Aeros from 2008-2010. I am no longer an employee of or affiliated with the team.