Home of Tampa Bay Rays eyes name change, but team says it would threaten stadium deal

Dec 14, 2023, 2:07 PM

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — They began as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998, then shortened their name in 2007 to simply Tampa Bay Rays. Now, as plans for a new ballpark take shape, there’s talk about changing the name again to reflect the team’s actual location: the St. Petersburg Rays.

The St. Petersburg City Council debated the possibility Thursday, ultimately voting for a resolution seeking options to elevate the city’s prominence with the MLB team that could include a name change. Council member Gina Driscoll said she brought the idea forward because many constituents think Tampa Bay really just means the city of Tampa.

“I think we owe it to our residents to have a discussion about this,” Driscoll said.

It is not something the Rays want, team co-president Brian Auld told the council, suggesting such a requirement could torpedo the entire $6.5 billion ballpark and downtown redevelopment project that includes affordable housing, a Black history museum, a hotel, retail and office space, bars and restaurants.

“We are the Tampa Bay Rays. Our name is deliberately inclusive. Our fans live throughout Tampa Bay and central Florida,” said Auld, noting that other local professional sports teams are the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL. “There will not be a new ballpark nor development project if there’s a requirement to change our franchise’s name.”

The new $1.3 billion ballpark unveiled in September would be located on the same 86-acre (34-hectare) tract of downtown land where Tropicana Field now sits. That domed stadium, which the Rays have called home since 1998, would be demolished. The deal would lock the Rays into their new home for at least 30 years beginning in 2028, ending speculation the team would move to Tampa or perhaps another city.

Supporters of a Rays name change say since St. Petersburg is putting $417.5 million in tax dollars into the deal, its name should come first — and that would boost the city’s national profile and tourism industry.

“To me, it does not make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Tampa. Tampa and Tampa Bay are one and the same,” resident Robert Kapusta told the council.

Other baseball teams have changed names. The Florida Marlins were required to become the Miami Marlins before their new stadium opened in 2012. In Southern California, the Angels have been Los Angeles Angels, California Angels, Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Mayor Ken Welch, however, agreed with the Rays. Welch, the city’s first Black mayor, has made the new ballpark a cornerstone of redeveloping the Gas Plant District that was home to a thriving Black community before Tropicana Field and an interstate highway displaced those homes and businesses.

“It would be detrimental to the promise we’ve made, if not fatal to this redevelopment,” to require a name change, Welch said.

Pinellas County, which is putting up about $312.5 million for the new ballpark, has no interest in changing the team’s name. Janet Long, chair of the Pinellas County Commission, said at a meeting last week that she does not support a name change “unless they don’t want the money from the county.”

The resolution adopted by the City Council directs Welch’s staff to prepare a report on the issue by Jan. 4. Driscoll amended her resolution to broaden its scope to include other possibilities such as including St. Petersburg in the new ballpark’s name, having players wear city-branded uniforms occasionally, placing more city-promoting signs in the facility and directing broadcasters to accurately describe the location.

Driscoll suggested it was an exaggeration to say the entire project is threatened by having these talks.

“We’ve got some different options here,” she said. “Suddenly, having this conversation puts the entire project in jeopardy? I don’t think that’s true.”

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Home of Tampa Bay Rays eyes name change, but team says it would threaten stadium deal