The Tampa Bay Rays’ proposal to build a new $1.3 billion stadium included a pledge to annually emblazon jerseys with St. Petersburg’s name for at least one home game.
Any switch from the regional moniker would require approval from Major League Baseball (MLB). Multiple city council members expressed their appreciation for the municipal branding at a subsequent meeting.
However, former Mayor Rick Baker believes offering public subsidies should require a permanent name change to the St. Petersburg Rays. Baker said he broached the idea in 2008 when the team hoped to build a waterfront stadium at Al Lang Field.
“Obviously, civic pride is important,” Baker told the Catalyst. “Secondly, it affects business relocations. Businesses want to come to a city they’ve heard of before …”
City officials have committed $287.5 million in tax-exempt bond issuances to build a new ballpark. It would anchor a momentous $6.5 billion mixed-use redevelopment of the Historic Gas Plant District.
The city would also pay $130 million to upgrade surrounding infrastructure. Pinellas County will contribute $312.5 million in tourist tax dollars to the stadium.
“If the city is spending hundreds of millions of dollars … why would we have that team named after Tampa?” Baker asked. “It makes no sense at all.
“And the idea that ‘Tampa Bay’ is somehow different … The rest of the world sees Tampa and Tampa Bay as the same thing, and you can tell when you’re watching the games.”
Baker served as mayor from 2001 to 2010. He explained that when IndyCar came to the downtown waterfront in 2003, his administration required that race officials call the event the St. Petersburg Grand Prix.
He noted that the Florida Marlins rebranded to the Miami Marlins as part of a new stadium deal, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Lightning’s names include their home city. The city council must approve a term sheet with the Rays, and Baker believes they should reject any deal that eschews the St. Petersburg name for all 162 games.
Former Mayor Bob Ulrich took a more measured approach.
Former Mayor Bob Ulrich
Ulrich served as mayor from 1987 through 1991 and controversially commenced construction on what eventually became Tropicana Field. The city lacked a franchise at the time, and the Illinois Legislature blocked a bid to relocate the Chicago White Sox after extending a voting deadline at the literal last minute.
Ulrich said the goal was for an expansion team to include the name “St. Pete.” He also noted the “heavy price” paid by the community.
“A regional name was OK,” Ulrich added. “But what it did do was take away from the singular approach to getting a major league ball team by St. Petersburg.”
He noted that the National Football League’s Packers put the City of Green Bay in the public consciousness. Ulrich also believes MLB officials would adopt whatever moniker brings the most money.
Ulrich doesn’t recall any discussions regarding the “St. Pete White Sox.” He said the focus was bringing baseball to the city.
Mayor Ken Welch is now trying to keep a team in St. Petersburg. Ulrich said the Rays absconding to another city “would have been a huge disappointment” to those who prodigiously worked to secure the franchise.
Mayor Ken Welch
City administrators hosted a series of public forums regarding Gas Plant redevelopment plans, and Welch said the team’s name was rarely – if ever – an issue. He said the community was more concerned with long-promised equitable opportunities at the site.
Welch believes the city is on the precipice of fulfilling those promises and keeping the Rays, a goal since he assumed office. “In retrospect, we’re in a great position if now we’re down to worrying about a name,” Welch added.
He said ongoing negotiations include other “practical” ways to elevate the city’s profile through joint advertising and branding. Welch also noted he wants “as many days as I can on a St. Pete-branded uniform.”
However, he also said “Tampa Bay” is an established brand that benefits the entire area. “I was asked to weigh in when the St. Pete Times changed their name from St. Pete to Tampa Bay, and I’ve got a pretty good quote in the op-ed about how our strength is as a region,” said the former county commissioner.
“I think that applies here, as well,” Welch added. “We certainly wouldn’t want the Buccaneers or the Lightning to be called just ‘Tampa,’ officially, and I think it’s the same thing for the Rays and the (Tampa Bay) Rowdies.”
Baker believes MLB officials would follow the team’s lead on a name change. Rays president Brian Auld put the debate to rest.
Auld, speaking Nov. 29 at the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership’s Leadership Luncheon, bristled at the topic of recent editorials. He said team officials are not considering a name change and remain focused on inclusivity in St. Petersburg and throughout the region.
“The potential for divisiveness around that issue is really troubling, and that’s why we’re not going to engage in it,” Auld said. “The name of the team is the Tampa Bay Rays, and I think serious people recognize that putting this entire project at risk over a 25-year-old name of our organization is probably not something worth doing.”