Ever since their inaugural 1997 season, the Akron Aeros have competed in downtown Canal Park as the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. And even though these long-established constants remain firmly in place, 2013 will be a season of substantial change for the franchise.
Last October, a long-simmering move became official when ownership of the team transitioned from Mike Agganis (the man responsible for bringing the Aeros to Akron) to Ken Babby. The new owner is an anomaly in the world of Minor League Baseball, and not just because his prior professional background was within the sales and marketing side of digital journalism. Though most denizens of the owner's box are on the far side of 50, Babby is just 33 years old.
Growing up on the inside
Babby's upbringing was a key component of his quick rise to team ownership, as his father, Lon, has enjoyed a decades-long career in the sports industry.
"I had the opportunity, from a young age, to be in and around the world of sports and to see how organizations work," recalled Babby. "My dad, he worked for the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Redskins before becoming an NBA agent. Now he's the president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns."
Being privy to this inside view fostered a perspective that is not often found among young sports fans.
"My interest was always on the fan experience side, because [the fan experience] starts from the moment you get out of the car. You're meeting the usher, engaging with the promotions and smelling the incredible food items. I love baseball, like we all do, but was always interested in what was going on outside of the lines."
Prior to acquiring the Aeros, Babby spent 13 years working for The Washington Post. He had several marketing and advertising positions within the company, culminating in the title of chief revenue officer and general manager of the paper's digital operations. This professional experience might not initially seem applicable to the world of Minor League Baseball, but Babby is able to draw some key parallels between the two.
"It's interesting how similar these businesses really are, in that they're both about community engagement and getting people excited about the product," he said. "In that way readership is like attendance in that it's a direct measure of how you're doing in terms of the product.
[In the journalism business] the relationship between the business side and the newsroom is like the separation of church and state," he continued. "And Minor League Baseball is like that as well, in that you don't get involved in the player side of the operation. We'll leave that to the Indians."
The path to Akron
Babby began the team acquisition process in earnest two years ago, raising capital and researching potential markets. These efforts soon led him to Eastern League president Joe McEacharn, who informed him about an opportunity in Akron. Babby was interested, and McEacharn quickly worked to broker an agreement between Babby, the Agganises (Mike and son Greg) and the city of Akron. The deal closed in October, and almost immediately, Babby signed a 30-year stadium lease agreement with the city in order to convey the message that, as he puts it, "We're here and we're investing in the community." In addition to the lease extension Babby committed to $3.5 million in private stadium investments, including a gargantuan new videoboard (the largest in Double-A) that Akron mayor Don Plusquellic has jokingly called "the monstrosity of Canal Park."
But all of this begs the question: Of all the teams that may have been available, why the Akron Aeros?
Babby cites the exemplary condition of Canal Park and the team's excellent working relationship with Mayor Plusquellic as contributing factors, but what it ultimately came down to, he said, is that "this community is the epitome of what we were looking for -- hard-working and family-centric. This is the sort of place where the product we are offering can go a long way.
"At first I didn't know much about Akron, but I started to spend time out here and get to know the people in the community and felt fortunate to be so warmly welcomed," he continued. "After 32 years in Washington, D.C, this is home now."
Learning on the fly
Though he's the owner, Babby has adapted what he dubs an "intern mentality" when it comes to learning how Minor League teams operate on a day-to-day basis. He's visited premier Minor League operations -- such as fellow Eastern League clubs the Reading Fightin' Phils and Richmond Flying Squirrels -- commiserated with executives nationwide, and (if you'll excuse the self-promotion) scoured the copious archives of Ben's Biz Blog. These research efforts are invaluable but can only go so far. Therefore, Babby's top priority upon assuming ownership was to assemble a staff that had far more industry experience than he did.
To this end, he hired Akron native Jim Pfander as the team's general manager. Pfander, a veteran executive, had actually held a similar position with the club in 2011 but departed for the Charlotte Stone Crabs after the season amidst the Aeros' then-uncertain ownership situation. Pfander will be reunited with his 2011 food and beverage director Jason Kerton, who returns to the club after making national headlines in 2011 with concession stand monstrosities such as the "Three Dog Night" (a turducken-style hot dog creation) and a five-pound ice cream sundae called "The Screamer." Another prominent addition to the staff is former Richmond Flying Squirrels director of promotions Christina Shisler, who now has the same position with the Aeros and will play a key role in planning creative giveaways and theme nights.
"The first and most important order of business was to assemble a great staff, and I'd put these guys up against anybody," said Babby. "Putting together a team like this, I think that makes a serious statement that we're here for the long run.
"I'm dedicating my life to this, and humbled by the opportunity," he continued. "We're going to make the most of it, because this is a community that deserves a great Minor League product."