No. 10: Akron, Ohio
TEAM (FIRST SEASON): Eastern League Akron RubberDucks (1989)
VENUE (YEAR OPENED): Canal Park (1997)
Akron to most sports fans may be best known as the hometown of LeBron James. But the RubberDucks and owner Ken Babby are doing their best to win the loyalty of the city, located 30 miles south of Cleveland. The Class AA affiliate of the Indians has seen a huge uptick in business since Babby’s purchase of the club in 2012.
Babby, a member of the 2016 Sports Business Journal Forty Under 40 class, has invested $7 million of private funds into the city-owned Canal Park and boosted the team’s corporate sponsors by 42%. Dave Burke, RubberDucks vice president of sales, called Babby the “face of the ballclub,” citing the owner’s active involvement in the community. “His energy as far as being out in the public and interacting with everyone is contagious,” Burke said. “The staff feeds off it and certainly follow his footsteps.” The RubberDucks have seen attendance grow by 34% and have averaged about 5,000 every year since since 2012, all in a market that has endured 17 straight years of declining population.
“We need people that are caring for their home and care about their players just as much as they do their bottom line,” said Carter Hawkins, Indians assistant general manager. “We definitely get that sense.”
Hawkins added that players who pass though Akron are impressed with its metropolitan feel and the Indians appreciate its proximity to Cleveland. — David Rumsey