Rejuvenating a brand: Ken Babby on the RubberDucks
Ken Babby speaks on Akron's name change, the community's reaction, and the future of Canal Park
The Akron Aeros became the Akron RubberDucks on October 29 as owner Ken Babby changed the course of the franchise heading into his second year at the helm.
"The Aeros… had lost a lot of their fanbase over the last 10 years," Babby said. "We decided it was time to rejuvenate a brand that had lost its way over time."
I recently spoke with Babby about his plans to rejuvenate the franchise's brand. In addition to the new name, we spoke about the community reaction to the RubberDucks, what is on the horizon for the team for the rest of the offseason, and what the future holds.
How The RubberDucks Came To Be
The RubberDucks had been called the Aeros since it moved to Akron in 1997 and the team has enjoyed considerable success, winning four Eastern League championships in that time. Given the state of attendance at Canal Park recently, however, Babby felt that the franchise needed an evolution.
"This was a franchise that had over 500,000 fans in its heyday and had great success in downtown Akron," he said. "When I bought the team, they were drawing under 200,000 fans a year, so there was really a sense that change was necessary."
While Babby saw change as necessary, he stressed that changing the name to the RubberDucks was not something he and his staff took lightly.
"Everything is deliberate," he said. "We don't do anything quickly. It's not like we woke up one day and said 'hey, it would be a really cool idea to rename the team RubberDucks.'"
Babby brought in a company called Brandiose to do the rebranding. Brandiose specializes in these changes, helping 60 teams like the RubberDucks through this transition, according to Babby. The RubberDucks join teams like the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Richmond Flying Squirrels, and even the Cincinnati Reds in making changes with Brandiose.
When it came to rebranding the Aeros as the RubberDucks, Babby recognized how the name could potentially come off to people.
"This wasn't going to be your lovable, bathtub rubber duck," he said. "It had to have grit, some fierceness to it, and [be] one that wasn't going to be rolled over."
Negative Reception Online
The immediate reaction to the name change on social media -- part of which you can see above -- featured quite a bit of negativity. Not that Babby is letting that negativity get to him.
"Social media invites a lot of people to come out, and historically what we've seen is the more critical people are the ones who write comments," he said. "We look at the locations of where these people are and we look them up and a lot of people, frankly, haven't been to games in years…
"Overall, we've received nothing but positive feedback from people that have been the loyalist to the franchise: the season ticket holders."
Back in 2011, fans voted to keep the Aeros name by 67 percent -- a naming contest that included the RubberDucks. Even though fans voted against it two years ago, Babby noted that the presence of the Aeros in that contest had a heavy effect.
"We felt really strongly that the community at the time had a chance to weigh in on some of the choices," he said of the 2011 vote. "Change is always difficult. If you always include the current name in the mix, you'll always have a lot of people say 'just keep it the way it is.'"
Even though there has been some backlash on the Internet, Babby said he has only found encouragement following the name change.
"There are always people that have different opinions on names or what a name should be," he said. "But at the end of the day, the phone calls and e-mails I've received have been very positive…
"It's minor league baseball. It's supposed to be fun. You're supposed to look at it and have a laugh and enjoy that it's all about family entertainment."
The Aeros may be no more, but that does not mean the team's current mascots -- Orbit and Homer -- are going anywhere. They will be joined by another mascot, which will be announced early in 2014.
"As Jim Pfander, our GM, said in a meeting a few weeks ago, it's going to feel like Disneyland with a lot of characters running around," Babby joked.
Overwhelming Merchandise Sales
Despite the vitriol of social media, the actions of consumers seem to be encouraging for the RubberDucks.
"We opened up our store at 11:00 AM, right after the announcement of the logo change and identity change," Babby said. "We've already had to reorder the merchandise that's in the store twice since October 29."
Those orders are not just coming from the greater Akron area, either. Babby said that orders have come from over 30 states, including California, Washington, and Texas.
"This logo has taken a mark now where [it] has certainly caught the attention of people who really get minor league baseball," he said. "I think we're on a national stage now in terms of [when] people talk about the most fun and the coolest minor league logos."
The RubberDucks are getting a national response, but Babby wanted to make sure the new logo had strong ties to the Akron region.
"It had to be a defining image of our community," he said. "A community that's revitalized itself and rebuilt itself through economic recession and changes economically here in the market.
"People from Akron are really proud to be from Akron."
Although the public's reaction to buying merchandise has been overwhelming, Babby underscored that those sales were not behind the rebranding.
"You don't remarket a team for merchandise," he said. "One of the great misnomers about this industry [is that] the cost of rebranding a baseball team in the community is far greater than anything you take or make back."
Future of Canal Park
The Akron Aeros may be no more, but the franchise still plays at Canal Park. At least, that is what it is called, for now.
Babby does not have any designs to move the team to another location or to have another Akron ballpark built, but as a new owner in the Eastern League, he does have the right to change the name of Canal Park. There are no imminent plans to change the stadium's name, though Babby noted the idea would probably come up in the next year or two.
"That's not something you just do on a whim either," he said of changing the name of Canal Park. "There's a lot that goes into finding the right partner, looking at the right relationship, changing street signs, [and] changing the identity of a building that's had the same name since 1997."
In the meantime, the money Babby will spend on upgrades for Canal Park will reach $5 million of privately financed -- not public -- money. Additionally, he extended the franchise's lease after buying the team, locking the RubberDucks into the building for the next 29 years.
A big chunk of that $5 million went into the new, massive video board in right-center field. Though Babby declined to spoil more facility upgrades that will be announced within the next month or two, he did talk about the new restaurant that will be opening in the former Wing Warehouse location on the right-field concourse.
The restaurant is set to open on March 15 and stay open year-round for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That breakfast part is important to Babby as he thinks it is something Akron has been missing.
"We're bringing downtown breakfast back to Akron, something that it's missed for a while," he said. "[We want it to be] the place where business gets done in the morning and also the place on Sunday where you bring your family for brunch."
Two restaurants have closed at that location -- a Wing Warehouse and a Menches Brothers burgers -- though Babby noted that neither was owned or operated by the team. He hopes that better cohesion between the restaurant and the team will make the third time a charm.
Looking to 2014
Given the nature of baseball, Babby remarked that the fans will let him know soon enough how these offseason changes were received.
"Attendance is a measure of confidence," he said. "One of the great things about this business is consumers get a chance to vote every day if they want your product, or at least in our case here in Akron, 71 days a year."
After a 12 percent increase in attendance in his first season, Babby hopes to see even more fans in Canal Park in 2014.
"I think with the improvements that we're making," he said. "The name change, with the identity, logo, with all the great family experiences that we're bringing, and our commitments to the community, we'd be grateful for another increase next year and we hope that's the case."
In the meantime, Babby is just hoping for some warmer weather.
"April's going to be here before we know it," he said. "We can't wait for warm weather, for people to come out and experience the restaurant, to experience these new facilities, [and] all the different things that we're doing for the community…
"Akron RubberDucks baseball is just around the corner, and we're just really proud to be a part of all this."
If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to read his Master's thesis on college athletes and Twitter, you can do so here.