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From hot dogs to sports franchise owner

The man who walked stadium steps has a food service business and a seat in the front office of baseball and hockey teams.

By JOEL POILEY, Times Correspondent
Published February 1, 2008



The bin of hot dogs in steaming hot water was weighing heavily on Ken Young's back as he hawked the dogs in the cramped upper deck at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.

But the eager youngster couldn't have been more in his element. For a 16-year-old in 1966 who loved sports and wanted to earn a few dollars while getting to watch his beloved Eagles, it was a match made in heaven.

Young enjoyed vending so much, he wrote a term paper about it in the 11th grade.

"I interviewed guys at the Palestra (University of Pennsylvania arena) about the business of vending. It was the best grade I ever had in high school," Young said. "I had a great time talking with fans, walking the stadium, making $30 or $40 with tips, and I'd watch the fourth quarter of the Eagles game. You couldn't beat it."

The 57-year-old Young has come a long way from selling those 30-cent hot dogs.

Those beginnings led to a wide-ranging career in food service that extended into sports franchise ownership. Today his holdings include four minor league baseball teams and the Norfolk Admirals, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Young lives in Carrollwood's Lake Magdalene area. But you'll find him half the year in Norfolk, Va., or Albuquerque, N.M., meticulously tending his Triple-A baseball franchises.

A father of three, he qualifies as old-school for the way he runs his sports franchises, with a fan-first attitude that has produced attendance records and contented customers.

"I've been a fan since I was 10 years old," Young said. "And I've been lucky because being around sports venues either as a fan or for business, I really got to see and get a feel for what fans like and what they dislike."

Take, for example, that overpriced food. You can tell fans that most of the money goes back to the sports team, but they don't want to hear it.

"I listened to fans and tried to determine, is that a reasonable criticism, or the fact that they are paying $5 for a beer they can get $2 elsewhere is why they're complaining?" he said.

He listened just as carefully when he got into the sports end of the business. He realized soon that "you have to make it fun because you don't know if you're going to win.... Winning isn't necessarily the most important thing in the minor leagues; people having fun and socializing is the most important thing.

"There are some (team owners) that could care less, especially 20 years ago, whether it was fun to be in the facility or whether the facility was clean. The new generation realizes you have to listen to the fans. If they're having fun, they'll come back."

"Also, a lot of sports executives were my clients on the food service side. So you listen to them and what's important to them."

Young is a sports purest who loves the games as much now as when he fell in love with them as a youth. But he's also a businessman who knows his clientele.

"One fan at Albuquerque came to me at the end of this season and asked about a promotion where the game was the only attraction," said Young, who majored in food service and housing administration at Penn State University, where his youngest son is now enrolled.

"I told him I could enjoy a promotion like that because I love the game. But the problem is, I get 2,000 new fans that walk in to the stadium that night and nothing but baseball's going on, and some are probably not coming back."

Welcome to Tampa

Young's work brought him to Tampa when he was chosen to run the concessions at the old Tampa Stadium in 1977.

"The Bucs were just starting and the Rowdies (soccer team) were very big at the time,"he said.

He enjoyed the area and decided to settle here, starting his own concession business, Ovations, based out of Lutz, in 1985. He now manages the concessions at more than 70 venues, including the Cajun dome in Louisiana. His work opened business doors to Super Bowls, Final Four's in college basketball, political conventions and the Olympics.

It also helped him get involved with nonprofit community groups that work next to his staff at events such as the annual Outback Bowl. His involvement with the New Year's Day game has also been a boon to his synagogue, Congregation Beth Am, which sells programs each year as a fundraiser, and where Young has served two terms as temple president.

The work is time consuming and detailed, but Outback Bowl president and CEO Jim McVey said the event runs smoothly because of Young's involvement.

"Ken's very important to the success of the Outback Bowl," McVey said. "He volunteers his time to oversee our licensing that includes game programs, game-day sales, you name it.

"Licensing is a monster. That includes shirts, hats, jackets, umbrellas - all the licensees have to go through Ken."

A club of his own

Young didn't intend to move into sports franchise ownership until approached by the New York Mets to become majority owner of its Triple A club in Norfolk.

"You're sitting around Shea Stadium with all these front-office people talking about buying a club. It's pretty neat," Young said. "It's like being a small member of the family. That's the fan in me. Then you had to raise the capital."

Once an investment team was formed, Harbor Park, modeled after Baltimore's Camden Yards, opened in 1993. The franchise flourished as the downtown Norfolk area grew.

Since Young took over day-to-day control of the Tides, the club has experienced unprecedented success, averaging in excess of 500,000 fans a year.

He also led an investment group in 2003 that purchased the Calgary Cannons. That club moved into a new stadium in 2003 in Albuquerque, where it has averaged 600,000 fans a year.

Young and Tides Baseball LP also purchased the Norfolk Admirals hockey team in the summer of 2004 after they moved from Springfield, Mass. The team plays in downtown Norfolk at Scope Arena, less than a mile from Harbor Park.

"I'm excited reading about the Lightning player movement in the paper every day living down here, but I didn't do it because I live here. That's just an added bonus," Young said.

Norfolk became a Baltimore Orioles affiliate after 38 years with the Mets in the fall of 2006. Young then put together an ownership group that purchased the Bowie Baysox and Frederick Keys, both of which are Maryland-based Orioles affiliates.

Is a pro franchise next?

Probably not, Young says. "You have these huge salaries, and they don't always put the right effort into it, and that really bugs me. Guys that don't run out balls to first base and are dogging it; I hate to see that."

At the same time, the lifelong fan says, "I would love to take a franchise that isn't doing particularly well and implement some things I've learned at the minor league level at the major league level.

"I've had some opportunities, but they just weren't realistic. But we're always talking to people."

[Last modified January 31, 2008, 08:41:43]

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