Since none of you are likely to know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Anthony Boyer, and despite being an avid Astros fan, and a contributor at Crawfish Boxes, my real baseball love is the minor leagues.
I have been a witness to two "minor league miracles" in my lifetime. The first was in 1997, when the Canton-AkronIndians moved to Canal Park in Akron, calling themselves the Aeros. Canal Park was instrumental in re-shaping downtown Akron. The surrounding area was re-developed and became a source of civic pride, rather than the quagmire it had been previously. As a student at nearby Kent State at the time, I spent many happy weekends there, soaking in the atmosphere and watching the city fall in love with itself.
Three years later, I got to watch it happen all over again when the Rockford Reds moved to my hometown, Dayton, and became the Dayton Dragons. Fifth Third Field still sets the standard in the Midwest League, and it was instrumental in re-shaping and re-defining the Miami Valley River corridor in downtown Dayton. That team became a cash cow for the ownership group (headlined by Archie Griffin and Magic Johnson). In 2011, the Dragons sold out their 815th straight home game, breaking a record for consecutive sellouts by a professional sports team, previously held by the Portland Trail Blazers. Since their inception, they've averaged 116% capacity at Fifth Third Field.
The Aeros were one of my very first minor league loves. So it should come as no surprise that their recent re-brand (or, as they prefer to say, "new identity") caught my attention. Beginning in 2014, the Aeros will be no more. Instead, they've been renamed the Akron RubberDucks. Two capitals, no space. I initially wrote an article at Crawfish Boxesdiscussing the RubberDucks change, but because of the audience, I had to tie it into the Astros. While researching and discussing the Akron re-brand, I wanted to write something focusing solely on that. Many thanks to Jason for giving me the opportunity to do that right here.
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At first glance, the move may look like a straight money grab. It's extremely rare for a minor league team to re-name themselves without changing locations or affiliates. When it does happen, it's usually either adding or removing the major league affiliate's name. For instance, in 2008 the Casper Rockies became the Casper Ghosts (they're now the Grand Junction Rockies.) In 2004, the Clearwater Phillies became the Clearwater Threshers.
Another example is the Greenville Drive. When they moved from Columbia, where they were known as the Capital City Bombers, they decided to keep the moniker. But "Bombers" did just that in Greenville, and after only a year, they became the Drive.
So it's easy to look at this move and assume that it was done for merchandising purposes. Pete Subsara, the Director of Promotions for the Rangers' Class-A South Atlantic League affiliate, the Hickory Crawdads, told me that he truly believes the re-brand will, in fact, have a positive impact on finances. "There's buzz in Akron about their minor league team and that's good enough reason to at least go to a game. One game can change the outlook of someone who has never been a fan. If they enjoy themselves, they will most likely make it out to another game. That's why every night is important for a minor league baseball team, whether it is a slow Monday night, or a buzzing Friday evening. Providing an outstanding show and creating an experience that fans won't forget night in and night out is vital. I think the Akron RubberDucks have already sparked the city and it's all uphill from there."
But Adam Liberman, the RubberDucks' Director of Public and Media Relations, cautions against the assumption that it's all - or even primarily - about money. "I'm not saying it won't be nice for us to make some money on merchandising," he told me in a phone interview. "Obviously, that's the case. But that's not the goal. That's not why it was done."
So why was it done?
The fact that the folks in Akron call the move a "new identity" instead of a "re-branding" isn't just lip service, it turns out. In the fifteen years since I watched the Akron Aeros' very first game in Canal Park, a lot had gone wrong. The ownership group had stagnated. Attendance was down. A lot of bridges had been burned.
"The goal the first year, was to change the fan experience, re-connect with the community. A lot of damage had been done."
Enter Ken Babby, the former chief revenue officer and general manager of digital operations at the Washington Post, and the son of Lon Babby, the Phoenix Suns' President of Basketball Operations. Babby purchased the team prior to the 2013 season, and he had a lot of work to do. "The goal the first year," Liberman told me, "was to change the fan experience, re-connect with the community. A lot of damage had been done. There was a huge disconnect between both civic entities and corporate entities that either were with the Aeros and left, or were with the Aeros and the communication had failed, or probably should have been here from the start, but were never connected with."
And they did change the fan experience. They installed a new HD scoreboard, the largest in Double-A baseball. They cleaned the park from top to bottom. They re-did their signs. Lowered prices on concessions. Updated their game presentation. More promotions. More emphasis on the family. In short, they made Canal Park a nicer place to see a baseball game. And it worked. Despite a fifth-place finish in the Eastern League's Western Division, the Aeros posted their highest attendance figures in six years.
Babby realized that what he was creating wasn't a re-brand, exactly. It was a new brand - related to the Aeros, but with his own family-friendly stamp on things. A new identity was a starting point to show the community that what had happened in the past didn't matter. What mattered was this team - this identity - moving forward. He also realized that if he was going to change the team's name, it was the right time in his ownership cycle to do it. Wait too long, and it would look like a straight money grab. So the Akron RubberDucks were born. As Liberman puts it: "The key word is rubber, and that's Akron. So what do you put with it that's fun? "
And that's the key word here: Fun.
Most of the reaction I've seen around the minors has been positive. The only negativity I've personally seen has been from folks in northeastern Ohio. My college roommate summed it up this way: "Shouldn't a team name be menacing? Why does the logo look like Daffy Duck got run over by a car?"
To me, this misses the point of minor league baseball. The minor leagues aren't about menacing team names; they're about family-friendly environments. As Liberman puts it, "This is a pro sports town, for the most part. The goal in pro sports is to win. Bottom line: Win the game. That's not the goal of a minor league team, on or off the field. They'd like to win, but winning is a byproduct of player development and of players playing well on a given day or time."
As members of the 15% of minor league fans who go to games for the baseball and for the prospects, it's sometimes easy to forget that the rest of the crowd doesn't really care all that much about Chun-Hsiu Chen's on-base percentage.
Those other 85% are the families you see littered around the ballpark. The kids in the bounce house in right field. The ones posing for pictures with the mascot. The ones with chocolate ice cream smudges on their chins. They don't know their Roberto Perez from their T.J. House. They're there to be entertained.
"Entertainment," said Subsara. "That's why many teams hire someone to put together a promotional lineup for the season and create an outstanding show for every game. It certainly is an integral part to getting fans into the stadium each and every night."
Promotions aren't just giveaway nights, either. "There are hundreds of entertainment companies out there with specific acts that will reach out to you and inquire about possibly coming out for a game to entertain the crowd," says Subsara. "You will see something that has never been done each year and the bar keeps getting raised."
George Costanza Night? Nobody Night? How about Awful Night in Altoona? Four Weddings and a Funeral? Win a Date with Henry Wrigley? These are things that would simply never happen at major league games, which are Far Too SeriousTM. But they're perfect for a minor league team fighting to get butts in the seats.
There's a lot of competition for a family's entertainment dollar, and minor league teams are no exception. Almost every year, teams are forced to consider shuttering their doors. If Major League baseball is Big Business, minor league baseball is decidedly small business. They're in competition with the local cineplex; the water park down the road. Modern Woodmen Park, home of the Quad Cities River Bandits, added a zipline, a ferris wheel, and other attractionsthis season in an effort to lure families to the park.
"The trick now," according to Liberman, "is to get the folks who came out and enjoyed themselves last year to come out again this year, and tell some other folks how great a time they had. And have some other folks who may have been turned off by the Aeros, whatever happened before, to come down and give us another chance and see how things have changed. Hopefully, they find that to be the case."
They've already announced a new restaurant, which will be open year-round, which will allow fans to see inside the stadium while sitting on Main Street. Liberman also mentions that there will be more announcements made over the weeks and months leading up to the inaugural RubberDucks game in April. Plenty of time to stock up on what promises to be the Eastern League's answer to the vuvuzela.