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Ken Babby looks back at Rubber Ducks origins

Legal News Reporter

Published: July 25, 2016

As the Akron Rubber Ducks minor league baseball team prepared to host the Eastern League All-Star Game, team owner and CEO Ken Babby took the opportunity to talk to the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce about his journey from the Washington Post’s digital media guru to Akron, Ohio team owner. Babby and his partners purchased the team, then called the Aeros, in 2012.

The talk was entitled “Bringing Affordable Fun to QuAkron.”

The 37-year-old Babby described a personal journey that has encompassed a lifetime, leading to an ownership style and level of hard work that has seen him named one of Sports Business Journal’s 2016 “40 under 40” class of influential sports business figures.

Babby has a history of being the youngest person to accomplish high-profile goals, including being the youngest vice president and corporate officer in the history of the Washington Post.

Among the accomplishments that earned Babby the publication’s recognition are several sports records for “youngest ever to…,” including “becoming the youngest multi-team professional sports owner with his purchase of the Jacksonville Suns in March 2015 (a AA affiliate of the Miami Marlins), and being named the youngest chairman of the board of the Baseball Internet Rights Company (BIRCO) in 2014.”

He has also won the 2015 Larry MacPhail Award, given by Minor League Baseball to the club that “has demonstrated outstanding and creative marketing and promotional efforts.”

The publication also noted that the team has put nearly $7 million into the Canal Park baseball facility since Babby acquired it, including installing the largest video board in AA class baseball.

The changes that Babby has brought to the team, which has seen attendance increase more than 27 percent in the last two years, stem from a lifelong connection to sports fans and venues, he said at the chamber meeting.

His father was general counsel to both the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington NFL team, as well as an agent representing athletes like Tim Duncan, he said, so, “I spent my childhood thinking that it was normal to be in professional lockers rooms, wander around ballparks, and hang out with famous athletes.”

Babby said that those experiences “created memories that became the greatest moments of my childhood. I developed a close relationship with my parents” through those shared experiences, he said.

He also told a story of his childhood that found him asking people in ballparks what they thought was good or bad about their fan experience, and included him keeping a legal pad of every detail of the fan experience at major league ballparks.

Those were memories he used, indirectly at least, to fashion his ideas about building a fan-friendly experience at Canal Park. But that opportunity came circuitously. He tried to get a job in the sports industry after graduating from college he said, but there were no jobs offered. So he took the job at the Post.

When it came time for him to look at potentially changing careers after he left the Post, Babby said that it was then that his old sports connections came to help him. An old friend of his was running the Eastern League, and connected him to the Akron Aeros situation.

After two visits to Akron, he decided that he could take on the challenge of a ballpark and a team that had trouble drawing fans, and to try to turn the Akron baseball experience into something dedicated to fan friendliness.

“For those of you who don’t know, since we are an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, the major league ball club makes all personnel decision,” Babby told the audience. That leaves the local team with only the responsibility for running the ballpark.

Babby said that, as he was looking at how he would run the team after he bought it, he understood that the average major league fan experience “would cost a family of four $200 to attend a game,” he said, and decided he wanted to run his portion of the team in such a way that it could cost a family of four closer to $20. That entailed dropping the prices on admissions and food after he bought the team, while, at the same time, increasing the in-stadium entertainment value.

In that way, he said, families could use the sporting experience to create the closeness that his family felt through sports.

After four years of this reboot, including a team name change, Canal Park is setting attendance and fan satisfaction marks, and the franchise is now considered a model for minor league baseball—as shown by its hosting “the first minor league All Star Game in the history of the state,” Babby said.

Babby’s goal is really very simple, he said. “We want to be the epicenter of affordable fun in Akron.”