Ken Babby quietly planted himself in Akron earlier this year. He wanted to learn about the community as he moved toward purchasing the Akron Aeros. He liked what he saw, around town and on the field at Canal Park, attending three dozen or so games as the Aeros marched to the championship of the Double A Eastern League.
The city and its residents should be pleased, too. Babby has said the right things, now that he has been freed to speak, all the necessary hurdles cleared in the sale. He talks about bringing new energy and interest to the franchise. The Aeros are a minor league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. Thus, the decisions about players do not reside with Babby. He produces the product around the team. That translates into making the ballpark an experience, from the moment the place comes into sight to the time fans make their exit, paying close attention to what he calls “touchpoints.”
It hardly should surprise to say that kind of attention has been missing. The Aeros once led the league in attendance, the novelty and quality of the stadium a draw when it opened in the late 1990s. The past decade attendance has plummeted, the club ranking ninth in the 12-team league, even with strong performances on the field.
What has been absent is an ownership engaged in the way Babby intends. He wants a ballpark eagerly catering to customers, from the bright lights of a new scoreboard to picnic-style seating for the multitaskers. The 25-year lease calls for $3.5 million in improvements, paid by the club.
More, Babby wants the Aeros to be a presence in town — in the schools, say, or the hospitals, making a larger contribution. He understands in another way that the club and the ballpark are part of a whole. Not all downtown stadiums have delivered economically in their cities. For its part, Canal Park has made a big difference, part of the foundation, including the growing University of Akron, for new restaurants and other activity. The lively and attractive venue that Babby seeks promises to renew and sustain the ballpark’s crucial role.
Keep in mind, a stronger downtown benefits the entire city and region, helping to generate the resources necessary for a higher quality of life, starting with the public schools.
The 32-year-old Babby points to the advice he received from Larry Lucchino, the current president of the Boston Red Sox. Lucchino told him to get real business experience before plunging into his dream job of owning a sports team. Babby did just that, working on the business side of the Washington Post for a decade. Now he sees an opportunity in Akron, his fresh eyes and ideas just what a downtown must attract.