The summer before he purchased the Cleveland Indians’ Double-A affiliate team based in Akron, Ohio, Ken Babby sat in the ballpark during a weeklong homestand, watching games and taking notes laying out the capital improvements he would eventually unveil in his first two seasons as owner.
The $5.5 million he invested sparked the city’s interest again in the minor league team, but it was his decision to completely rebrand the franchise that really drew attention and as he expected, criticism.
The stir came at the close of the 2013 season, when Babby proclaimed the Akron Aeros, a nod to the state’s aviation history, would now be called the RubberDucks, in homage to the city’s industrial tire giants Goodyear and Bridgestone.
“I think that when people see that logo, when they see that tire tread and they realize this is not your cuddly bathtub rubber duck, they get pretty darn excited about what it is we’re building,” Babby says.
Treading new territory
Though the decision to rebrand came only 1½ years after buying the franchise, it was not one Babby, the team’s owner and CEO, took lightly. He and his team spent months talking up the idea among season ticket holders and city officials, sought the counsel of a branding agency with expertise in the sports industry and even asked the advice of other team owners who’d gone through the process.
The team had already survived five name changes since its founding back in 1980, and became the Aeros in 1996. The term RubberDucks was actually a finalist in a 2009 naming contest that never went any further, and was the one Babby thought best captured the spirit of Akron.
He admits handling fan reaction and the press in the initial weeks was a bit sticky, but says ultimately it’s “been nothing short of incredible.” That’s because attendance and new branded merchandise sales are at record levels so far in 2014.
“We’ve restocked merchandise now three times before the start of our season,” he says. “The RubberDucks sold out opening night here in April. It was the first time an opening night has been sold out before the first pitch since 1997 when the ballpark opened.”
Fans also seem to be enjoying the facility improvements Babby has financed. Notably these include the largest video scoreboard in minor league baseball, new themed food and bar offerings, and a year-round restaurant and private event space. Add to this three new stadium sections for group bookings, and refurbished seating in the “Upper Duck” and along the section deemed “Fowl Territory.”
Still, changing the name was met on fan social media sites and in the comments sections of local papers with equal measures of disbelief and ridicule. Babby, however, is quick to point to some of the “fun, goofy, even borderline quirky names” of teams across the league that “also honor the community they serve” such as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Lansing Lugnuts and the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
In response to the critics, Babby stands firm that the decision was not only the right one, but executed at the right stage.
“It really was time for change. It was time for some reignited energy and identity in terms of what we were building. After seeing the 54 percent attendance increase since changing the name, I’d say Akron has voted pretty heavily that they’re behind what we’re building,” he says.
Family fun, affordability get top billing
Babby reduced ticket and concession prices while he increased promotions to draw the crowds to Canal Park, the home game venue in the center of downtown Akron. He introduced a new mascot with a contest to name him, boosted kid-focused activities and scheduled evening movies for fans sitting on the field when the team wasn’t playing.
Following Sunday afternoon games, kids are permitted to run the bases on the field, while monthly bobble head giveaways, $1 beers on Thirsty Thursdays, Friday night fireworks and local celebrity guest announcers on Saturdays round out the promotions schedule.
“We really believed in what we’re doing. And that’s important for any leader or any business owner, to have confidence in the mission,” Babby says.
So despite the flak over the RubberDucks’ quack, Babby is certain his risk was worth taking.
“We know what they are in favor of … when they come to the ballpark — a $5 ticket, a $2 hotdog, that great experience of the promotions and everything happening on the field,” Babby says. “And maybe, over time, they’ll fall in love with this pretty fierce-looking rubber duck as well.”