Like Jimmy Haslam III in Cleveland, Ken Babby is a Sign of Hope for Akron Aeros Fans

Ken Babby

Disclaimer: I worked for the Akron Aeros in various media capacities from 2008-2010. I maintained many close relationships with my former colleagues.

This November, two candidates are hoping for your votes in the polls as they strive to change the American political scene.

More likely, however, Ohioans and especially Northeast Ohio sports fans have been more inspired and excited about two new faces in town that are delivering sports hope by the bundles.

Jimmy Haslam III, the new official of the Cleveland Browns, has been all over the media in the last few weeks, starting his reign with a bang and doing all of the little things right. But he’s not the only new owner in town making people smile left and right.

Ken Babby, son of long-time NBA agent and executive Lon Babby, also took over ownership over the Double-A Akron Aeros baseball team this week. Terms of the agreement have not been announced, but the 32-year-old retired newspaper guru looks to be taking bold steps for the future over at Canal Park.

Babby took over the reigns from Mike and Greg Agganis, who had owned the franchise dating back to its days as the Lynn Sailors in Lynn, Mass. The Boston-based owners then moved the team to Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton in 1989, becoming the Canton-Akron Indians.

As pressure mounted to make significant upgrades to Canton’s old stadium, the Agganis’ found a better opportunity: the city of Akron. Bob Dyer, Akron Beacon Journal critic, recently detailed these opening stages of the 1997 Canal Park debut in his open letter to Babby.

Not only were there complications with the stadium deal, but the controversy over the potential nickname Akron Blast led to quick haste for the Agganis father-son duo. Over the years, they never quite got along perfectly with the city, made it in town about every other weekend during the summer, and failed to make significant improvements to the stadium or the fan experience downtown.

The story goes, however, that the Aeros still managed to lead Double-A and the Eastern League attendance multiple times during those first few years. Canal Park, itself, as a spark of downtown redevelopment, was used as a model for many other minor league stadiums and continues to be hailed as one of the best in the business.

But after five-year season ticket renewals came up in 2002, and fans began tiring of the same old,-same old after many years, attendance started to drop and the Agganis’ popularity fell even farther. Attendance dropped for the franchise every single season from 2004 (478,611) through 2010 (261,563), a total drop of over 40%. The Aeros were no longer top 10 in the minors in attendance; they struggled to even finish in the top 10 in the 12-team Eastern League.

So things started shaking up in 2011. As murmurs began appearing about a possible ownership shift, the Agganis began investing more and more into the fan experience, the front office and the stadium. WFNY reported heavily on their unique food offerings developed by Food and Beverage Director Jason Kerton that season, led by the ridiculous Three Dog Night.

Iconic minor league executive Chuck Domino served as a consultant to the Agganis’ that season, steering many of their decisions in the community while trying to partner them up with a new owner. Local native Jim Pfander, a Single-A baseball executive, was brought in my the new leadership group to serve as the team’s CEO, the first major shakeup at or above GM Jeff Auman’s level since the team moved to Canton.

But after reported losses that season because of the new large investments, everything fell apart again. Kerton left to join Michael Symon’s Cleveland operations before the 2011 season ended, while Domino and Pfander both had no connections with the Aeros by the start of the next yeaer.

After another season of the same old, same old in 2012, there was no reported news over a possible ownership change. … Until right after yet another Akron Eastern League Championship this September. Babby, who later said that he attended over 30 games this past season, was in the driver’s seat to become the new owner once the league and city approved the deal.

Although on a much smaller scale than the Browns, Akron fans certainly had many anxiety issues and questions about this deal appearing at the last-minute, with no immediate knowledge of Babby. What would change? Would Canal Park improve its fan experience? Would Babby be more visible in the community? And, of course, what about the team name which nearly changed to the Rubber Ducks during that 2011 season as well?

Well, if anything, Babby’s immediate visibility has alleviate all possible doubt of a repeat of the Agganis ownership. The Akron Beacon Journal has dedicated several front page news articles to his meetings with the city of Akron, which has re-upped its lease agreement to help the Aeros avoid any payments while fronting the money for major stadium upgrades.

That’s a double-whammy of a partnership for Babby, who has returned the favor with these types of quotes about his obsession with the fan experience at a minor league game:

I want to make Canal Park the destination place to be from April to September. Despite all the hectic natures of our lives — difficult jobs, relationships, et cetera — we all need that place where for two or three hours we can relax, take a deep breath, rewind, slow down and enjoy ourselves.

I’m an obsessive fan of experience at these ballparks. There’s something very special about it from the time you leave your car and walk into the ballpark. From when you first smell the ballpark food, to your first interaction with an usher. When you engage with team personnel, maybe in the kids’ fun zone, or watching the game itself or tasting that first hot dog, there’s something very unique about it. Our organization will be absolutely obsessed with fan experience — that’s our mission.

Finally, for the first time in a long while, there appears to be long-term positive changes coming to Akron for the Aeros. Fans are excited about the benefits to the stadium and a likely overhaul to the scoreboard. And, of course, about an owner being involved in the community now alongside the new GM, the Akronite Pfander, who returned from his one-year hiatus back in Single-A in Florida.

Babby is quite young for an any owner at just 32. He worked for the Washington Post in various capacities for eight years prior to this deal, taking on leadership positions in his later years within new media. So he knows first-hand how to deal with the media as an owner, and that’s clearly shown in his rapport with the Beacon Journal staff even over the last few weeks.

While the upside might not be as high as Haslam leading the Browns to playoff success, Babby represents a breath of fresh air for baseball in Akron. His creativity, youth and energy should re-invigorate the entire organization, bringing it back up the food chain as one of the better Double-A and minor league baseball teams in the country.

(Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

  • bridgecrosser

    A solid ticket sales team with group sales drives minor league attendance. One would really need to know the direction of the group sales staff to comment thoroughly on attendance trends.

    Also, you have the new GM listed as a 32-year old newspaper guru. What the hell is that? If he’s such a guru, why isn’t he being sought by a better media group? That seems pretty inflated.

    Minor league baseball teams offer the best ROI in pro sports if done right. People had conflict with the Agannis but they knew how to make a dollar. The vast sum of 1st-time owners in minor league sports are so, so, so unprepared for the realities of the business landscape.

    Also, seems like some of your disgust should be applied more heavily on Akron for the terms of the deal, not solely on Agannis for the stadium upgrades.