Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Baseball-feature

Swinging for the fences

Kenneth Babby ’02 aims to score big as new owner of Akron baseball team

Kenneth Babby ’02There’s no professional sports team owner in the United States like Kenneth Babby ’02. His birth certificate attests to that. At 33, the new head of the Akron Aeros Double-A baseball club is the youngest team owner in the country.

In a game that loves numbers, Babby doesn’t dwell on this distinction from this northeast Ohio city known as the “rubber capital of the world.” His marathon work days—he’ll arrive at downtown’s Canal Park by 8 a.m. and sometimes not leave until midnight—are consumed by altogether different metrics.

Such as the 68-foot-wide video board he recently installed beyond the left-center-field fence. Or the 20-scoop ice cream colossus known as “The Screamer,” which debuted at the Aeros’ season opener in April. The confection is even served in an authentic batting helmet that fans can take home.

This is baseball, Babby style.

“For me, it’s more about what happens outside the lines,” says Babby, a computer science and economics major at Wheaton. “I’ve always had this obsession with the fan experience, from the moment they get out of the car to the moment they decide where to sit.”

That obsession—and dreams of owning his own team—dates back to his days as a kid doing homework in the warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles. His father, Lon Babby, was the team’s general counsel from 1979 to 1994, during which time the younger Babby’s love affair with the game began. Day after day, he watched the Oriole faithful descend on the stadium to root for their team. Nothing got to the city’s soul better.

“There’s something magical about these places,” says Babby, who was raised in Bethesda, Md. “You’re really walking into the epicenter of a community.”

Community is a common refrain in Babby’s life, and it’s an ethos he experienced in no small measure at Wheaton. He calls the college a “small but mighty community” that values personal connections. He enrolled at Wheaton not only for its beautiful campus, but also because “people talked to you and took you in.” As a student, Babby wasted little time joining the fold.

Akron AerosHe was class president his sophomore year, and as Student Government Association (SGA) treasurer during his junior and senior years, he helped manage a $300,000 SGA budget. And so began the budding career of a businessman and community booster.

Babby continues to play critical roles at the college. He is a member of the Board of Trustees and he sits on the Go Beyond: Campaign for Wheaton steering committee. He says raising funds for the college is vital to ensuring that future generations of Wheaton students can have the same transformative learning and character-building experiences that he did.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, Wheaton has made me who I am,” Babby says. “I arrived on that campus as a teenager not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, and Wheaton helped build in me a love of community, of philanthropy and giving back.”

These days, Babby harks back to lessons learned at the college to reinvigorate an Aeros team that has lost its entertainment cachet in recent years.

“My very early strategic lessons were taught right there in Knapton Hall at Wheaton,” Babby says, citing economics professor John Gildea’s lectures on supply and demand and strategic corporate finance skills. “Wheaton taught me how to think and how to solve things strategically. To an outsider, we’re selling hot dogs, tickets and advertising. But in terms of a price strategy, marketing and trying to fill a 9,000-seat ballpark 71 nights a year, it’s hard work.”

That’s particularly been the case in recent years. Between 2004 and 2010, Aeros annual attendance plunged 40 percent—to just over 260,000. It was a bitter pill for a team that previously led all 30 Double-A franchises in attendance (the Aeros also were the first team at the Double-A level to draw a half million fans).

But, with only weeks before opening day in April, Babby wasn’t dwelling on the past; there was too much work to be done. The Aeros’ mascot, Orbit the Space Cat, has made 70 public appearances and counting since Babby assumed ownership last October. The new owner is similarly ubiquitous, speaking to service groups, organizations and anyone in Akron who, like Babby, sees magic in baseball.

“This is a rededication to the fan experience,” says Babby. “To be a successful business, you have to be a giving and caring corporate and community citizen, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Babby brings an impressive pedigree (he earned an M.B.A. from Johns Hopkins University in 2007) and an enthusiasm that should bode well for Aeros fans, according to those who know him. After graduating from Wheaton, he landed a position in the information technology department at the Washington Post. It wasn’t his first exposure to the paper; he completed an IT internship at the Post in the summer after his sophomore year. His rise within the company ranks was unprecedented. When he resigned in March 2012, Babby was the newspaper’s chief revenue officer and general manager for digital operations, and the youngest senior officer in the history of the Post.

Kenneth Babby ’02

As a new owner, Kenneth Babby ’02 is ready for the challenges coming his way.

He oversaw the development of the newspaper’s mobile, video and email outreach, innovations that in 2011 generated record traffic to the Post’s digital properties. In a memo to staff announcing Babby’s resignation, President and General Manager Steve Hills lauded him for “tremendous energy as well as innovative ideas, a results-focused orientation, and humility.”

It’s those traits he’s expected to draw from in making the Aeros a regional draw once again.

Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino, who has known the Babby family since he worked with Lon Babby in Baltimore, urged Ken—much to the young man’s chagrin—to forge a path, at least initially, away from baseball. It was at the Post that Babby learned marketing skills that Lucchino says will translate well to baseball.

“He made a good decision years ago to develop his own body of work rather than jump too soon into the sports world,” Lucchino says. “There are a lot of people who love sports, but what’s important is you bring a skill, a talent, a body of experience to the table so that you can do the job. Ken went out on his own and developed those skills and his own reputation. I give him great credit for that.

“If I could buy stock in the Akron Aeros, I would, because of the faith I have in Ken and his energy, drive and passion,” adds Lucchino.

Wheaton classmate and friend Nathaniel “Nash” Oven ’02 recalls joining Babby at an Aeros game in June 2012, before he bought the team. Oven and his wife, Amy, didn’t spend so much time watching the game as they did switching seats to consider sight lines and to study fans.

“We sat in 10 or 15 different sections of the stadium,” recalls Oven, assistant track and field coach at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. “Ken was talking his plan and we were giving our ideas about what we’d like to see a ballpark be. For someone who’s been around sports all his life, he wanted the fan’s perspective.”

Are the bleachers comfortable? Is there enough shade? How are the concessions?

Approaching a year later, Babby is still inquiring.

“There’s something to be said for going in with your eyes wide open and thinking differently about how to do things,” he says. “For me, that’s been very much the process here: hiring great people, asking great questions, and making mistakes and trying to learn from them. I’ve always tried to keep that intern mentality that I learned in my Wheaton days, and it’s a huge part of my early success here in Akron.”

Says Oven: “He wants you to come to the ballpark and be a kid while you’re there for three hours, to really enjoy the game of baseball and all that happens with it, from the smell of the ballpark food to how you watch the replays on the scoreboard, to making sure you’re comfortable in your seat. He thinks about the overall product; it’s not just the endgame. That’s what makes him such a great businessperson.”

Kenneth Babby ’02

Kenneth Babby ’02 has some fun on the baseball field with the Aeros mascot, Orbit the Space Cat.

Babby grew up aspiring to play professional ball, and he even considered trying out for catcher on the Wheaton squad. But despite strong defensive skills, he had a mediocre arm and couldn’t hit a breaking ball.

“It was a blessing and I didn’t even realize it,” Babby says. “In the end, it was more appropriate for me to be studying.”

He approached academics in earnest. But it didn’t always come easy. “Ken was a good student, but he had to work at it,” says Gildea. “He had to work at a lot of things he did in life.”

That drive is exactly what makes Babby suited for the work ahead, Gildea adds.

Over the next two years, Babby is committed to making $3.5 million in privately financed improvements to Canal Park. The video board is the crowning touch, the largest of its kind at the Double-A level, and equal in size to the board at Boston’s Fenway Park. Babby says the board won’t be limited to baseball; on Sundays, Akronites will be invited to gather on the outfield turf to watch a movie. He’s also planning to build a restaurant in the right-field concourse.

Don’t look for Babby to cloister himself in the owner’s box. He plans to attend games with his 4-year-old son, Josh, who lives in Maryland with Babby’s former wife, Jill Barents Babby ’02. “You’ll probably find me in the bleachers,” he says, his enthusiasm unrestrained. “Where else would anybody want to spend their time? It’s northeast Ohio in the summertime. It’s gorgeous.”

Babby’s boosterism hasn’t gone unnoticed by Akron’s powers that be. Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic says he immediately was struck by Babby’s geniality and readiness to dive into life in his adopted city. Babby signed a 30-year stadium lease, in addition to inking a four-year player development extension with the Indians.

“We embraced him right at the beginning. I felt early on that I could trust him, and he proved that out. It was a relatively easy negotiation,” Plusquellic says. “Ken brings this great enthusiasm and a great amount of personal exuberance and energy that we really needed.”

Babby can expect challenges. Unlike most businesses, minor league baseball team owners don’t control the product on the field. Players come and go at the discretion of big league clubs, so marketing the team around star athletes isn’t part of the prospectus. Successful team ownership at this level relies on more than just home runs and the chance to watch soon-to-be-famous prospects.

“You have to provide the fun and the activities and the things that make minor league baseball what it is,” Plusquellic says. “You might be watching a person running around the bases in a ketchup uniform. There are so many things that make it a fun, family-oriented activity center.”

Gildea knows his old charge will be equal to the task.

“This is absolutely the perfect job for Ken,” says Gildea, a self-professed Indians nut who plans to travel to Akron this summer to see his protégé and take in a game. “He has the big picture of what fans want to see, plus he has such great interpersonal skills. He’s going to be one of these owners who knows all of his employees on a first-name basis. He’s going to bring a love and compassion to the game and community that I think the people of Akron are really going to appreciate.”

Babby doesn’t take his role for granted.

“This is a very flattering position that I’m in,” he says. “I’m humbled every day by how much I’ve learned.”

For baseball’s youngest owner, the to-do list’s last order of business is short and to the point: Play ball!

Photos by David Monseur / Akron Aeros