Can the Akron Rubber Ducks Swim with Ohio's Best Minor League Baseball Franchises?
The Midwest is full of great minor league baseball and excellent ballpark experiences. Some, like Dayton and Toledo, are beacons of excellence in classy minor league team management from top to bottom. Others are a work in progress. But none I’ve attended recently left me scratching my head with mixed emotions quite so much as my recent experience visiting Canal Park and the Akron Rubber Ducks, the double-A minor league team affiliate of the major league Cleveland Guardians.
The Rubber Ducks have been in Akron since 1997, rebranded a decade ago from their former name, the Aeros. The Rubber Ducks moniker is an attempted nod to Akron’s proud history as a hub of rubber production, tire manufacturing, and polymer research, but is generally a pretty cringeworthy rebrand. One of the most successful minor league teams in both win percentage and attendance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, tagging along with the then-success of the parent franchise, then the Cleveland Indians, the Aeros hit hard times in the mid-to-late 2000s. A new ownership group led by a young owner out of Baltimore has been responsible for shaping their identify since 2012, and the Rubber Ducks continue to perform reasonably well with attendance near the bottom of the top half of the double-A Eastern League.
After 25 years in Akron, the team is an institution in the city, which itself is struggling to retain population and cultivate an identity. With a lot of solid bones, including several historic buildings, some interesting steep topography evocative of San Francisco, the former oats silos of Quaker Oats, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a surprisingly large art museum, an historic canal as a public ream focal point, and the 25,000-student University of Akron immediately adjacent, the downtown, while small, is pleasantly surprising. The Rubber Ducks are a core element anchoring the southern half of downtown, holding the street wall for two full blocks along Main Street, the city’s central downtown artery.
The night we attended the Ducks played Harrisburg. They won the game, and postgame fireworks created a feel-good vibe. A bobblehead giveaway featured Chris Kattan, a non-baseball playing actor from California with no apparent ties to Akron. The experience overall was fun, but it was a different vibe than most of our other Ohio minor league adventures, and it left us scratching our heads. Based on our experience, and additional research, here are a few lessons on team, city, and stadium relationships that can be lessons for other cities.
Canal Park is a great ballpark engaged with the city of Akron
The Rubber Ducks play at Canal Park, a stately ballpark in the heart of downtown that opened with the team’s move to Akron from Canton in 1997. The ballpark, when it opened, was large by double-A standards – and even, per someone’s pipe dream, was designed to be expandable to triple-A standards down the road – and was ahead of its time in overall amenities with an impressive historicizing architectural stature that carries a continuous brick concourse structure all the way around the ballpark from foul pole to foul pole. With most of the seating in a single bowl, a ring of suites perches above between the baselines. Originally outfitted with a small bleacher section in right field, that area has been repurposed by new ownership into an eating and drinking area with specialized ticket admission.
Few parks anywhere in the nation can boast integration into their cities as well as Canal Park. For one, it is an increasingly rare instance of a park currying interesting and quirky geography that is entirely naturally derived from the contours of its site. Nothing is contrived in the architecture of Canal Park, and the result is a product that is architecturally stately of an elegance and beauty unusual at either the minor- or major-league level. Somebody with good architectural sensibilities was designing the park here, an unusual phenomenon in an era today in which congealing amenities often leads to unfortunate sacrifices in overall architectural design quality at the majority of new parks. Canal Park, by contrast, shoehorns a unique footprint in between the city’s grid of downtown streets and the arcing organic shape of the Ohio and Erie Canal as it loops around the park just north of left field. The park is comfortably scaled with ample concourses, though the downtown geometry ensures there is no wasted space.
While the canal could perhaps be more visibly integrated, its mere existence beyond left field offers the park a unique identity and is felt palpably throughout the ballpark experience. Well-designed brickwork along the concourses and a consistently scaled historicizing design evoke the history of the canal and a classic feel, something that even is felt in the historicizing infield light fixtures, one of the park’s more underrated features.
Since the entire seating bowl is accessed from a single concourse, the consistent single-story brick building structure that frames it is a critical ballpark element. On the inside hugging the seating bowl and on the outside holding the street wall of Main Street, this built element is the feature within which the disparate geometries of the two get resolved. It accommodates the typical array of shops and concession stands (with $2 hot dogs!), but it does so such that some of the retail has a unique two-sided orientation, on game days opening inward to the park and on non-gamedays opening outward to the city. This characteristic is one of the ballpark’s most clever design elements and one of the finest examples I’ve seen of a ballpark framing multiple blocks of a downtown street without that street losing scale or a sense of activation on non-gamedays. The single-story nature of the concourse building and the consistency of the brick styling with the other architecture of the city’s historic downtown reinforces this urban integration. Other cities should learn from Akron in this way.
As a result, the ballpark has been successful in infilling an under-developed portion of the downtown. Increasingly, it is also catalyzing development around it, including several new restaurants catty-corner and across the street. For a city like Akron, where downtown retail is a struggle, leveraging ballpark traffic to catalyze new retail along a major artery was critical, and it’s happening.
Overall, I’m super impressed by the ballpark. It has an excellent blend of balance and scale. It’s architecturally well-designed, and it’s stately and historicizing, while adaptably contemporary. And it suits its city, a place of moderate scale and eclectic history, extremely well. Overall it’s one of the finest ballparks I’ve seen at the double-A level.
Akron is at the cutting edge of monetizing everything in their park
Akron’s ownership group is clearly well-schooled at how to operate a gameday experience that is efficient, fun and profitable.
One of the most overwhelming elements of the experience in Akron of both the physical operation within the park and of the operations throughout the game, is just how much care has been taken by ownership to program and monetize literally every element of the experience. Walking around the park, the concourse is crowded because every part of the concourse that does not directly serve the main seating bowl has been cordoned off as a special area for party decks and specialized food and beverage seating, each of which is uniquely ticketed. There is not a single un-monetized portion of the park. What used to be bleachers is now a food and beverage area. The normally externally-facing restaurant in the right field corner is also monetized with specially priced admission. And formerly underused seats down the left field line, too, have been repurposed into yet another specially ticketed eating and drinking area. There is not one inch of the ballpark in which attending the game there doesn’t have the ability to be “sold”. For a team that has struggled with attendance for years, getting the most out of the ballpark is a smart business strategy.
Along the same lines, every in-game element is similarly monetized and promoted. Not only do the between inning promotions have sponsors, but every foul ball is sponsored by Luigi’s pizza. By contrast, walks are sponsored by Papa John’s. By the time the game was over, we’d counted four separate pizza chain sponsorships, each devoted to a different element of the game. The advertising game of the Rubber Ducks front office is delivering a full-court press. While entertaining for a few innings, we ultimately found this aspect of the game experience suffocating. It takes away significantly from the experience to see the Luigi’s pizza bounce across the scoreboard three or four times in a single at-bat, and at some point we just wanted to tell the Ducks’ front office it was enough already.
Overall, the experience is a bit forced and over-the-top for a midwestern palate
The game experience in Akron has many similar attributes to the game experiences at other minor league ballparks across the Rust Belt Midwest. It’s fun, entertaining, and the crowd was engaged. Nevertheless, the operation of the franchise was noticeably different than in other Rust Belt cities, and at times felt a bit more Savana Banana than old-fashioned midwestern baseball – a lot of gimmicks, a lot of advertising, and wacky and frenetic branding. To some extent, baseball needs this infusion of excitement. On balance, however, we found the Akron experience to be a little bit over-the-top for a Midwestern audience in a way that ultimately detracts and is probably hurting them in overall attendance.
One of the biggest ways in which Akron’s branding feels wacky and all over the place is that in the midst of trying to offer a personalized experience, they’ve created a mish-mash identity that feels floundering and lost. Akron’s branding includes at least four different logos matrixed across color and logo schemes that are inconsistent and chaotic. Fans in the stands wore about 500 varieties of t-shirt in six or seven different colors, most of which they’d bought from the gift shop, which includes 500 more varieties in half a dozen more colors. The store also sold rubber ducks in numerous different colors, but none branded to the team. Good selection, no consistency. With no distinct logo or graphic identity, the crowd looked random more than distinct. The logo behind the plate didn’t match the logos on the players’ hats, and the uniforms the players were wearing didn’t match the colors of the branding on the scoreboard. What I ultimately deduced maybe is the “main” logo isn’t very well-executed, and seems more like a Disney character than a stately logo for a mainstay franchise in a historic city. Without clear branding and no distinct identity save for the fact that there is no clear identity, the whole operation feels only skin-deep without the depth or gravitas of the more engrained franchise identities in other Ohio cities.
This chaotic mess of branding approach would be disconcerting for a new franchise, but it’s especially offensive in a city like Akron. The branding of the Rubber Ducks is dopey, and it’s a mis-match for the ballpark. It evokes to me the feel of the Soldier Field renovations in Chicago, where citizens where aghast at the city’s decision to build a chaotic modern monstrosity on top of the stadium’s historic colonnade just for the purpose of retaining the historic site as home of the Bears. In Akron, it seems a slap in the face to the city’s stately and well-refined stadium that it’s occupied by such an odd and chaotic brand for the team. The muted and well-composed color tones of the ballpark are at odds with the colors of the “diamond seats” that new ownership installed as a means of upcharging for the first few rows. Similarly, the relentless advertising and overt over-monetization of everything chokes the fan experience against beautiful idyllic sunsets with a backdrop of church spires.
Ultimately, I think the branding of the Rubber Ducks is also a mismatch for the sports culture of Ohio. In a state obsessed with sports, you don’t need to try that hard to deliver a family-friendly experience that people will enjoy. Nearly every minor league team in Ohio enjoys robust attendance, and the most successful are those with solid brands that people love and trust. In Akron, they appear to be running the team as though it’s a desperation buzzer-beater, with wacky hail marry passes in the form of off-the-wall promotions. Does Akron need to be giving away the bobbleheads of random actors from California when Jim Thome played for the Aeros and Thurmon Munson is a regional baseball icon?
Ultimately, the Ducks are reasonably successful, and their attendance has increased since new ownership rebranded the team a decade ago. Nevertheless, the narrative that Akron has successfully re-engaged its community is a bit of a mixed-bag. When the Aeros started in Akron, they led the Eastern League in attendance six years in a row. Until 2006 they’d never finished lower than third in the league, before the fell off due to disengaged ownership. Since their rebrand to the Rubber Ducks, the team’s attendance has risen from its lows, but not anywhere close to its highs. I was surprised on the beautiful summer Saturday night we attended that the team only attracted some 5,000 or so fans. Since their rebrand, the team has finished in the range of fourth to sixth in the Eastern League in attendance. Frankly Akron should be doing better than this. It’s a large and stable market full of robust Ohio sports fans who have a history of flocking to good baseball.
Our takeaways from Akron were mixed. It’s a really nice ballpark, and clearly ownership is on the cutting edge in areas that are pushing the envelope for how Ohio minor league teams can innovate. But they might be pressing a bit too hard. Akron’s a great experience, but it’s a half-step down from the class of the state.