Ken Babby recalls walking around Baltimore’s Camden Yards ballpark with his father, who served as general counsel to the Orioles.
Even then, he says, he tended to focus more on the fans than the players on the field.
“I used to walk around the ballpark to see where people were going, what they were eating, how they were being entertained,” Babby told members of the Rotary Club of Ponte Vedra Beach last week. “When I was 12, I even invented something I called the ‘Happiness Index’ – I would count how many people were smiling and write it down on my notepad.”
Today, as the owner and CEO of the Jacksonville Suns AA baseball team, Babby is still focused on putting smiles on fans’ faces.
“Sports has this incredible role in our community of bringing people together,” Babby told Rotarians. “We’re providing great, affordable family fun – for two or three hours, you can check your problems at the door and have a great time.”
Since purchasing the Suns last fall, Babby has invested $1.8 million in making upgrades to The Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, renovating the suites and public areas, including the Budweiser Tiki Terrace, Firehouse Hot Corner and the Palm Tree Pavilion picnic area. Drawing on experience gleaned from his 2012 purchase of the Akron RubberDucks – where attendance has grown 27 percent under his leadership – Babby has focused on making the Suns a family-friendly destination, where a family of four can have a good time for $20 and kids can play catch on the field and run the bases on Sundays.
“It was a daunting and somewhat terrifying feeling, coming to this community – not knowing anyone, not having a place to live – but having this bold vision,” Babby said. “ But I found out quickly that this is a really special place.”
Now, as Babby’s first season as Suns owner nears its conclusion, it appears the upgrades and changes are working, with a 55 percent increase in attendance.
“The community has gotten completely behind what we’ve tried to do,” Babby said. “We really lead with that message of affordable family entertainment.”
It’s a tradition he plans to continue for a long time, noting that the Suns are working on securing a 25-year lease.
“We’re looking forward to providing affordable family fun for decades to come.”