Ken Babby, 38, is the owner of the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Akron RubberDucks minor league baseball teams. A Baltimore native, Babby previously worked at the Washington Post, where he became the youngest officer in the company’s history. He ultimately retired from the newspaper at the age of 32, after Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos purchased the Post in 2013.
Can you please briefly tell us about your background?
I was very fortunate to grow up in and around the sports industry. My father worked for the Baltimore Orioles as general counsel. Getting to see a sports team through that lens was a really exciting and meaningful part of my childhood. Although I always wanted to work in sports, my family from a young age gave me the good advice — although it was against what I wanted to hear — to go out and get a real job before getting into sports. My first job was with the Washington Post, working in the IT department and doing nightside support from 6 p.m. until 3 a.m. supporting the systems that got the newspapers out on a daily basis. I had planned to stay at the Post for a year, maybe two. But I really fell in love with the media business and working for my hometown paper. I ended up staying there for 13 years and running our digital business and becoming the company’s chief revenue officer.
What do you attribute to your accelerated rise at the Washington Post?
I don’t know if there was necessarily any sort of secret sauce to it, beyond just relentless hard work and focus on building a great business by building great teams. I’ve always loved solving problems, I’ve always loved being challenged with aspects of whatever it took to build a business. I will say: I worked for a great family. The Graham family who owned the newspaper for over 130 years was a wonderful place to learn leadership.
What is it about minor league baseball that is so special to you?
Minor league baseball is a unique, front row seat to communities around the country. There are 160 minor league baseball teams, some in cities as large as Jacksonville and some in small communities where the minor league baseball team remains the only form of community entertainment. We see ourselves as providers of great, affordable, family entertainment. You’re also seeing great baseball and some players who are quite likely to be on the field for major league teams in the next couple years. Case in point, the team that I own in Akron, the RubberDucks, 15 out of the 25 players who played for the Cleveland Indians just a season ago, came through Akron on the way to the major leagues. The idea that you can come into a ballpark like the Baseball Grounds for $5, have a $2 hot dog every single game, great promotions, great fireworks and on top of that be able to see the next cut of talent in Major League Baseball, is a pretty rich value proposition.
What was the process of renaming the Suns the Jumbo Shrimp?
When we moved to Jacksonville, there was a very strong brand identity in terms of the Suns and what that team meant in the community. When I spoke with people in the community and talked to leaders and folks throughout the Northeast Florida community, many people hadn’t been to games in years. People would come up to me and say how much they loved the team but would also say they hadn’t been to a game in two years or more. There was something quite opportunistic about rejuvenating some life and some energy into the franchise.
We started a process of really exploring what Northeast Florida stood for: led first by the military, which led to the red, white and blue color scheme; an incredibly strong affinity toward the water; and we wanted to really understand and unpack this notion that Jacksonville is a huge city but operates in a lot of ways like a small community. This notion of Jumbo Shrimp, this “bit little” city seemed to really play true to who we are. Finally, it was corky and fun. You would never name a major league baseball team the Jumbo Shrimp, or the RubberDucks or the Flying Squirrels. This is a dynamic where we don’t want people to take us too seriously. We’re a minor league baseball team; we’re about fun, and that’s what we’re setting out to do.
What are your goals for the Jumbo Shrimp?
To be a leader in affordable family fun in Northeast Florida. This past season, more than 350,000 people came down to the Baseball Grounds to see a game. We want to continue to see that grow. We want to differentiate ourselves in the amusement, entertainment and sports area. Ironically, our competition is not the Jacksonville Jaguars or any of the great sports teams in town. Our competition is people going to the movies, sitting on the beach or a Sunday afternoon barbecue. We believe there’s a tremendous amount of room for growth as long as we continue to deliver a great experience, keep our prices affordable and deliver great value.
What do you think the future holds for Jacksonville?
I could not be more optimistic about the rebirth of Downtown and the great works that Mayor Curry is doing. You don’t have to look more than a couple hundred yards to the right and see the promise of what Shad Khan has brought to our community. As you travel throughout the community, there’s construction everywhere. You really can’t go a mile in any direction without seeing a crane, a new bridge, overpass or housing project. Construction is an early indicator of growth in a community, and I would say by the looks of ours, it’s looking pretty good. I’m pretty darn bullish on what’s happening in the community.
Edited by Jon Blauvelt