A new era begins April 10 at Canal Park.

A new era begins April 10 at Canal Park.

The Akron RubberDucks will play their first home game, putting an official face on the numerous cosmetic and infrastructure changes that the franchise has incurred during the past seven months. Since the 2013 season ended, owner Ken Babby has continued to overhaul the team he bought in October 2012, changing the franchise’s nickname, uniforms and major elements of Canal Park.

“Truly we were building a whole new experience here and in our first year since I bought the team, the Akron Aeros last year at Canal Park really was a whole new ball game,” Babby said. “We committed to $3.5 million in investments … to build some of these areas (and) to really revamp the experience.”

Babby noted that the expenditures have grown to include new premium seating areas in right and left field, and a new restaurant in right field that includes a space for special events. The changes eliminated 1,100 seats, but after visiting a series of minor league stadiums across the United States last season, Babby and members of the team’s front office concluded that such changes were necessary to adapt to the experience fans were seeking at AA games in Akron.

The cost to sit in the new Fowl Territory area down the third base line or the Tiki Terrace in right field will be higher than the seats the new sections replaced, with tickets costing $20 per person ($22 on fireworks nights). Fowl Territory will include a picnic patio with a buffet of ballpark-style food choices. Located in the right field corner, Tiki Terrace is built around a tiki bar topped with a thatched roof.

Season-ticket holders will have access to the Duck Club behind the right-field stands. In addition to a new restaurant on the lower level, the club includes an event space on its upper level. Both levels have large banks of windows facing the field, allowing fans to watch the game from inside.

“There’s going to be a venue for everybody in the ballpark,” Babby said. “For the family of four, they’ll be in the place we call Fowl Territory, hopefully. Or if you’re out with a buddy or on a first date, hopefully you’ll be in the Tiki Terrace in right field, where you’ll have a chance to enjoy a cold beer and have a great experience at the ballpark.”

The changes extended to sartorial matters in the offseason when the team announced it was changing its name from Aeros to RubberDucks, marking its first new moniker since moving from Canton to Akron in 1997. New colors and uniforms came with the change, with duck-themed graphics as the centerpiece of the team’s new look.

The changes produced both positive and negative reaction from fans on social media sites, but Babby said the overall response in the past five months has been mostly favorable.

"It’s been very positive. In some ways we’ve been blown away by the response. The first couple weeks of change are always difficult, but we announced the change on Oct. 29, and the community certainly got behind it,” Babby said. “Within the first two months, before the holidays, we had reordered all of our merchandise three times. We’re proud of it because it speaks to who our community is.”

Despite the merchandise sales, Babby insisted the change was not made just to sell more hats, shirts and jerseys.

“The merchandise is a nice thing that comes with a change like that,” Babby said. “On the other hand, you would never make a move like this just for the merchandise. Just the cost of making a name change like this in the community — the logos, the cost to develop the brand, to copyright the brand and change it all around town — well outweighs anything you could make in merchandise.”

As part of the name and logo change, the RubberDucks have a new mascot that was unveiled on a piece-by-piece basis on the team’s website earlier this month. Fans were asked to name the mascot, with submissions weighed by the front office and the winner to be announced at the team’s home opener on April 10.

The new mascot will be the primary public representation of the team, but former mascot Orbit will remain a part of the franchise.

Involving the fans in the naming process was an extension of the minor-league baseball philosophy of putting the fan experience first, Babby added, explaining that regardless of any surrounding elements, minor league baseball “is all about fun, affordable family entertainment.”

The changes to the stadium remain a work in progress, with lingering winter weather slowing crews working to get the new areas of Canal Park ready for Opening Night. Crews have been working extended hours to complete projects, and Babby is confident that everything will be ready by April 10. Additional changes could be on the way as the RubberDucks progress deeper into their 30-year lease with the city of Akron, which owns the facility.

“In some ways, we’re just getting started,” Babby said. “The investment in the brand is a process that takes a long time. We signed a 30-year lease with the city of Akron and I hope we’ll be here longer than that. We’ll continue to invest in our product, in our game experience, in our facility and in our team.”

Reach Andy at 330-580-8396 or andy.harris@thesuburbanite.com.
On Twitter: @aharrisBURB