Almost a year to the day that Ken Babby was introduced as the new owner of the Akron Aeros franchise, the Washington D.C. native announced that the team was going to be rebranded and renamed the Akron RubberDucks. For Babby and his staff, the name change was all part of the process that they started the day he took over the franchise.
“We spent most of 2013 rebuilding the fan experience in Akron at Canal Park. I think we’ve done a good job of that,” said Babby in a sit down interview with WFNY. “We lowered concession prices. We put in the largest video board in AA baseball. We brought in a team of really sharp minor league executives in promotions and marketing thinking through the different aspects of how to build a great fan experience.”
Those marketing executives were kept quite busy, as Akron had a promotion of some sort for each of the team’s 71 home games and were recognized by Minor League Baseball as having one of the most creative and exciting promotional schedules in 2013, a feat they hope to duplicate in 2014. Some of the traditional promotions like fireworks and bobbleheads will be back of course. The franchise also celebrates everything from Italian heritage to mustaches in an effort to have fun and bring people to the park. Not all promotions are giveaways or are costly for the team, but each night gets special treatment.
“The community rewarded that by supporting what we did. We were up 12% in attendance last year, and I anticipate we’ll continue to grow attendance,” Babby added. “When we looked at it long and hard we said to ourselves that we need a brand and an identity that represents this new experience that represents who we are, this new generation, this new era of Akron baseball.”
The name RubberDucks was the most popular choice of the fans aside from Aeros in a name change poll taken by Ohio.com a few years back. It is a name that Babby believes honors the history of the Akron community, while at the same time is a fun name that families can enjoy together.
Affordable, family fun.
When you think of baseball in Akron, and specifically the RubberDucks, that’s what Babby would like to come to mind. That’s what the promotions are for. It’s a mantra. It drove the name change.
“We are not ashamed of our history of being the Akron Aeros,” Babby said. “We won four championships as the Akron Aeros. There have been some great players that have come through Canal Park on their way to Cleveland. This is not slamming the door on the history of the franchise, it’s an evolution and a new chapter.”
That new chapter will include a new mascot, “a new member of the family” as Babby calls it, which the team will unveil sometime after the first of the year. If you are a still a fan of Orbit the space cat, or Homer the bird don’t worry. They will still be around and part of the experience.
Changing the name of the team isn’t just something you do on a whim or without a lot of planning and details. It was a process that took around five months to get finalized.
“There are rounds of approvals that you need to go out and get, but there’s also a heavy amount of costs,” Babby said in response to those that think the name change is just about merchandising. “It is a significant expense that I’ll say is in the several hundred thousand dollar range, and with signage even more.”
While the team had to work closely with Minor League Baseball and the Eastern League during the name change process, one group that was surprisingly uninvolved was the Cleveland Indians.
“We called them and let them know, Mark Shapiro was very supportive,” said Babby. “Mark gets that this is minor league baseball, it’s fun. It has to be fun.”
So what is the relationship like between the RubberDucks and the Indians, or with any minor league team and it’s parent club? Of all the dynamics in the world of business or sports, that relationship has to be one of the strangest.
“There’s two components to it. Remember that the Major League club, in our case the Indians, controls everything that you see out on the field. Who plays, who pitches, who the manager is, all the way down to the trainers, who is in the bullpen everything related to the baseball experience. I tell people all the time I own a business where in some ways I can’t control the product of. The baseball experience is run by the Indians. That said, it is our job to maintain travel, lodging, getting the players housing, all the things that go into the well being of those 25 men. We work very closely with the Indians on those aspects.”
Everything else is the responsibility of Babby and the Akron staff. Everything that happens in the stands, with the concessions, ticket sales, merchandising, promotions, suites, the mascots, and everything else that goes on at Canal Park is independent of the Indians. That’s not to say that the two organizations don’t ever speak about those items. Babby said he was honored when Cleveland’s Mark Shapiro took in a few games at Canal Park and asked about ideas for promotions.
“Mark and I talk often, we actually sit on a couple of boards together,” Babby said. “I know him well. His father and my father actually worked together years ago when my father was with the Orioles and Ron Shapiro represented Cal Ripken.”
The separation of responsibilities allows Babby, Pfander and his staff to focus on the business side and leave the baseball to the Indians.
“We go to great depths to make sure that their players are happy and successful here from a facilities standpoint, a travel standpoint and a well being standpoint so that a Danny Salazar can pitch opening day here in Akron and with the Indians in the playoffs at Progressive Field.”
Unlike Danny Salazar who has been playing baseball his whole life before getting his chance in the show, Ken Babby had never worked in baseball before owning the Aeros. He came from the Washington Post. His father Lon is the President of Basketball Operations with the Phoenix Suns. He was a player agent for years and an attorney for several teams in the D.C. area.
That’s quite a leap from being a sports fan to owning a team.
“I’m learning everyday. I have thirteen years under my belt in a big company, with a Fortune 500 company with over 3,500 employees and taking on a number of difficult challenges in the media business, which is not the sports business. I also grew up in and around sports where I was able to see how great organizations and even later how not so great organizations worked in terms of their exposure and experience,” Babby admits. “The other thing I would say is that I am one guy in this big puzzle here in Akron. The first thing I did within two minutes of buying the team was made sure we had the best GM in minor league baseball. The GM in minor league baseball is not a player guy, he’s a business guy, and that’s Jim Pfander who is a fifteen year, highly respected minor league baseball guy.”
Perhaps that unique relationship between a minor league team and it’s MLB parent helps a first time owner. Without having to worry about the players and coaches on the field, Babby is able to concentrate on his areas of expertise, and lean on those around him.
“We surrounded ourselves with great people who know what they’re doing, and I’m here everyday in the office and learning as we go along.”
The second year.
It would be easy to think that Babby bought the Aeros as a toy. There is a stereotype of franchise owners having outrageous wealth and just wanting to be a part of the NFL, or NBA or Major League Baseball. The Mark Cubans and Dan Gilberts of the sports world might fit that description.
With Babby, this isn’t just a summer thing. This isn’t some kind of tax shelter. This is his only business. He is deeply invested in the success of the franchise.
“This is my business. I put everything I had into this. Truthfully, this is a small business with 23 employees that puts on a show 71 nights a year for our fans and we take that challenge very seriously. Financially, I’ve put everything I had into this and I’m very pleased so far with how the community has gotten behind everything we’re doing. This next year with this next evolution of growth will be a big year for us.”
That growth will include a new full time restaurant and banquet room opening at Canal Park in the spring. The construction began Monday morning. It is the highlight of the second year for Babby and the RubberDucks, and the biggest project.
“The restaurant is clearly the biggest. When I bought the team I committed to spending three and a half million dollars on improvements to the park, so we put in the video board which is obviously a very large commitment. We increased that commitment to five million dollars this year with the restaurant. Making this a place that people can come year round even when there isn’t a RubberDucks game.”
The restaurant will be on the ground floor with a group space upstairs for weddings, banquets and conferences serviced by the same kitchen as the restaurant. The restaurant will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as have a bar and great views of the field and park.
Having grown up in Washington, Babby has always been a fan of the Redskins. He’s a season ticket holder that stilll goes back to D.C. on the weekends to see his team in person. The Redskins and owner Daniel Snyder find themselves in a controversy over the name of the team, which many have suggested is in need of a change.
“For 33 years I’m about as deep a Redskins fan as you can find and I maintain that loyalty. I think in the case of the Redskins, it is such an iconic brand, and they are so deep in tradition and with no intent in any way to provide any slander or wrongdoing on any ethnicity,” Babby said. “The name Redskins as I think has been pretty widely covered is not meant to be a derogatory term and is in many ways one of the most celebrated brands in professional sports. If I was the owner of the Washington Redskins I wouldn’t change the name, and I can understand why Dan Snyder doesn’t want to change the name. That said, a lot needs to be done to communicate why that decision is the way it is. I think him putting a letter out the last couple of weeks was the first really good move that the organization has made in a long time to say we’re not changing the name, we’re proud of the Redskins heritage and here are the reasons why.” This debate has gone on, I remember when my dad was a lawyer for the team in the late eighties people were talking about this.” “Unlike minor league baseball, a name at the NFL level has to carry a deeper traditional value. In our case it’s about affordable family fun.” I couldn’t imagine what the costs and strategic choices would be to change the name at the NFL level.”
He declined to comment about the Indians and the use of Chief Wahoo, only saying that they are proud to be the double affiliate.
The snow globe story.
One of the more successful promotions from last season was the Roger Dorn snow globe giveaway. On the 25th anniversary of the movie Major League the Aeros brought in actor Corbin Bernsen who played third baseman Roger Dorn in the movie.
The promotion was almost a disaster as the snow globes, which were ordered in February were held up in customs and still not delivered the day of the game. The Aeros gave away vouchers instead, and tickets to the next day’s game for fans to come and pick up the prize.
“[Bernsen] was wonderful that night he was here. Not only was he on the field and throwing our first pitch, but he signed autographs for hours. He talked to our suite holders, he sat at the bar and talked to people. He was really into what we were doing here, so that was great fun. He was far and away just phenomenal.”
But where did the idea for a snow globe come from? It turns out it was because of Bernsen himself.
The Aeros contacted Bernsen and he agreed to come and do the event. The original plan was for the Aeros to give away a Dorn bobblehead doll. Sometime later Bernsen called the Aeros and told them that he was an avid snow globe collector. It turns out he has around 8,000 of them in his home in Los Angeles, but had never had a snow globe made with his likeness.
The group knew immediately that a snow globe was the perfect giveaway for the event.
Snow globes are supposed to be fun after all. Affordable, family fun that is.