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SBJ/September 30 - October 6, 2002/This Weeks Issue
Owner of Isotopes is in his element
Published September 30, 2002
Ken Young didn't need another minor league baseball team. He especially didn't need one across the country from where he lives and works. He understood that as a businessman, but not as an enthusiast. Now he's the managing general partner of the Pacific Coast League's Albuquerque Isotopes, 2,000 miles from home.
You don't see this happening at plastics plants or paper mills. But sports, while undeniably a business, touches Young in a way that many of us can identify with. It's why hardened tycoons spend a few hundred of their precious millions to buy an NFL or MLB team late in life, why some entrepreneurs don't mind losing money on the way to winning championships.
Ken Young, who built up a minor league baseball franchise in Norfolk, Va., is trying to do the same thing in Albuquerque, N.M.
Young is an amiable 51-year-old with a crinkly, Charlie Brown smile. He has spent his entire professional life in sports, mostly in food service. He hasn't gotten rich, but he has done well enough. Maximizing his income isn't at the top of his list of priorities anymore, if it ever was.
"The thing that gives me the rush is putting on a good show and seeing the appreciation the fans get from it," he says. "It comes from watching the adults watching their children, and seeing the fun in their eyes. I get to do that every night."
He loves the rush so much that when the chance came to do it in a second city, two time zones distant from his base as part owner and managing general partner of the Norfolk (Va.) Tides of the International League, the New York Mets' top farm club, he didn't let the logistical problems deter him. "I wanted to see those same faces in another city," he said. "I wanted to bring family entertainment the way we do it to a new market and see it react the way Norfolk did."
Young is one of however many dozen team owners spread across the different sports and leagues from top to bottom who has made his avocation his vocation. Like others, he added business to pleasure. The entry price at this level isn't as onerous as it is at Dan Snyder's or even Howard Schultz's, but Young and his partners paid $10 million for the Pacific Coast League franchise they moved to Albuquerque, and the $7 million Young and company paid for Norfolk a decade ago was a record at the time.
What makes him unique is that he isn't a magnate or a stockbroker who struck gold. He could be the guy you see mowing his lawn on a Saturday afternoon who always waves. He is a businessman, but he isn't setting up shop in a neighboring state or creating an economy of scale like the downtown seafood place that opens a branch in a wealthy suburb. What he's doing makes little sense in terms of ego gratification and even less in terms of dollars. It really only makes sense in his heart.
Albuquerque's new ballpark, shown in a rendering, is to be ready for play next spring.
So there he was in Albuquerque the other day, starting the whole process again. Far from home, an East Coaster gone west, he sat in the temporary office quarters of Albuquerque Baseball Inc. and set the city's new team in motion. Across the street, the skeleton of a ballpark was rising on the site of the Albuquerque Sports Stadium, where the Albuquerque Dukes had played as a Los Angeles Dodgers farm club for 29 years.
Every time he drives past the construction site, Young can't help but stare, and not only because he and his partners will be paying $700,000 of annual rent for the facility that emerges from the girders. Where he sees cranes and hard hats, he envisions the same kind of reaction he gets in Norfolk. He's selling baseball, the green grass set against a starry night. "I like to position myself where I can see the fans as they walk in and get their first glimpse of the field," he says. "I want to see the look on their faces. When it comes down to it, that's why I'm in this business."
Young and some partners negotiated to buy the franchise a year ago, when it was still operating as the Calgary Cannons. The sale was contingent on Young's negotiations with the city of Albuquerque. The Class AAA Dukes had departed for Portland in 2000 after two decades as the primary option for affordable family entertainment in town. Albuquerque wanted baseball back. It agreed to pump $25 million into the Sports Stadium to seal the deal. Young, who'd never spent time in Albuquerque before, became its unlikely savior.
Why unlikely? He already owned a 15 percent interest in the Tides, and he's the face of that team in Norfolk. He'd experienced the ego gratification of walking the ballpark, shaking hands and slapping backs as the owner. His sons had manned the concession booths and his daughter had swept off home plate and, invariably, the umpire's shoes, with a broom. They're in college now and won't be doing that again.
And Young still has a food service company serving arenas and stadiums. He sold 55 percent of Ovations Food Services to Comcast-Spectacor several years ago, but he continues to run it as it continues to grow. The Tides play in Norfolk, of course, and Ovations is run out of Tampa. The Comcast home office is in Philadelphia. That's already one city too many, maybe two, for a sane man.
On a visit in early September, Young is laying the groundwork for Albuquerque's Opening Day. He's completing negotiations with a radio station, wondering who gets to choose announcers and why that hasn't been spelled out in the agreement. He's ordering phones for the new offices and getting to know the two sales associates hired by general manager Mel Kowalchuk. He's attempting to huddle with the mayor and plan a hot-dog lunch honoring the ballpark construction workers, who are ahead of schedule. None of this is fun, exactly, but without it, the fun couldn't happen.
Most important, he's announcing the name of the new team to the city. Popular sentiment favors the Dukes, but popular sentiment doesn't know Ken Young. He wouldn't bother to be here if he was just going to do the same old thing.
"I think people need to realize that we have a brand new stadium, we have a brand new team, we have a brand new type of baseball coming in," Young tells the Albuquerque Tribune, the city's afternoon daily, in an interview a few hours before the press conference to announce the new name. The Tribune's reporter, who has been here for decades, just nods, slowly and a bit sadly. He knows what is coming next. As rumored, Young has decided to name the team the Isotopes.
This will come as a disappointment to the mayor, who had pushed hard for the rebirth of the Dukes, and to much of the city's old guard. In Albuquerque, minor league baseball is taken very seriously. Among sports, it sits second or third in the ranking of relative importance, behind University of New Mexico basketball but perhaps ahead of New Mexico football, depending on whether that team is up or down. Isotopes seems frivolous. A marketing gimmick.
The origin of the name is actually rather astonishing. In March 2001, the Fox cartoon television series "The Simpsons" ran an episode in which Albuquerque tries to steal away family patriarch Homer Simpson's favorite team, the Springfield Isotopes. So Homer stages a hunger strike and the team decides to stay in Springfield.
Young had never seen an entire "Simpsons" episode. He knew as much about "Simpsons" history and lore as about, well, nuclear physics. But when several local radio stations ran a contest to name the team last summer, with voting done by Internet, mail and phone, more fans suggested Isotopes than any other name. The Albuquerque Tribune did the same on its Web site later on, choosing five names, including Dukes and Isotopes, and asking voters to select between them. More than 120,000 votes were tallied, and Isotopes received more votes than all the other choices combined.
Obviously, these weren't just "Simpsons" fans voting. To the younger generation of Albuquerque, a city just a little too small and remote to be on anyone's radar screen, naming a team after a cartoon episode seemed a wonderfully subversive act. Young liked that.
At the same time, there were marketing benefits to choosing Isotopes. Minor league teams around the country have understood for years that names like Carolina Mudcats, Brooklyn Cyclones and Kannapolis Intimidators attract more regional and national attention than, say, the Iowa Cubs. They also sell more T-shirts and other memorabilia, at the ballpark and over the Internet, which is a not insignificant source of revenue for a minor league team.
At the press conference, more than 50 media representatives jam into a small conference room. The morning newspaper alone sends five of them. They're there to see a black, yellow, red and silver logo of an A‚ with atomic particles and a baseball orbiting. T-shirts and hats, freshly made that morning by a local supplier, are distributed. The traditionalists grumble, but most everyone else has to admit that there's something fetching about the cartoonish letters and the unlikely name.
Ken Young smiles for the cameras, patiently explaining the rationale. What he doesn't quite say is that naming the team the Albuquerque Isotopes is fun. In the end, that's why he chose it. In fact, the name itself can be seen as shorthand for his entire philosophy. It speaks to family entertainment. It describes a franchise that doesn't take itself all that seriously. Ultimately, Young hopes, that will come to be seen as an asset by the entire community, not just the teenage subversives.
Isotopes also happens to play to New Mexico's atomic heritage, though when asked the proper definition of the word at the press conference, Young smiles and allows that he isn't certain what it means. Food-service executives don't routinely get involved in splitting the atom.
The positive implications of such a name eventually set in. Young smiles again; smiling comes easy to him. In the corporate, franchised world of professional baseball, where it isn't always easy to find the fun behind the clutter of all that business, being an aberrant element doesn't seem a bad idea at all.
Bruce Schoenfeld (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior correspondent for SportsBusiness Journal.