The Gwinnett Braves announced Monday that they’ll change names before next season, eschewing one of baseball’s most iconic surnames in favor of a yet-to-be-determined moniker more reflective of the team’s home county.
It’s a move that team officials hope will lead to better marketing and alleviate “confusion” among fans by helping the Triple-A affiliate better stand apart from the big league ballclub. Team officials have said its not unusual for folks to buy tickets for one team and show up at the other’s stadium.
The decision is also one that left Gwinnett leaders, who have witnessed years of meager crowds and unrealized developmental dreams around their county’s taxpayer-funded stadium, unsure what to think.
“I don’t believe that [renaming the team] is the silver bullet, the fantasy to fix all things, but I think it’s good,” said Commissioner Jace Brooks, whose District 1 includes Coolray Field, the stadium where the Gwinnett Braves have played since their arrival in 2009. “… I think it will be a good process if it will cause them to put some dollars, some resources into it.”
District 4 Commissioner John Heard was less diplomatic.
“I’m a little concerned in that I don’t want the Braves to do anything that would affect the marketability of the stadium and bringing people out to our ballpark,” he said Monday. “Although I’m so disappointed in the attendance that they’re having right now that I don’t think they could do anything to hurt.”
Gwinnett Braves general manager North Johnson, who has floated the possibility of a name change for several years, made the official announcement in a statement released Monday. He called the Braves brand an “incredible” one — but one that, with the big league team in the same metro Atlanta market, has also bred “confusion” among fans “over the last several years.”
The team, which will remain an Atlanta Braves affiliate, is soliciting fan suggestions for a more “unique, hometown” name. Online entry forms are available until June 2 and, after that, the top handful of options will be announced and voted on.
“We have an exciting opportunity to connect even further within our community and we’re thrilled the community will have a say in our new name,” Johnson said in a news release.
When the Triple-A team moved to Gwinnett from Richmond, Va., county officials used the prestigious Braves name as part of the justification for spending $64 million to buy a chunk of property off Ga. 20 near Lawrenceville and build Coolray Field. Name recognition would make the team a big draw, officials said, and the economic development spurred by the stadium would offset the hefty investment.
Little of that vision has become reality.
Through the first month-plus of this season, the G-Braves’ average attendance of about 3,580 is the second lowest in the 14-team International League. The team had the league’s lowest average attendance in 2016 and, in each of its seven seasons before that, had the league’s second- or third-lowest mark.
Gwinnett County is still on the hook for the stadium until 2038. In January, the Board of Commissioners voted to refinance the bonds it used to pay for the project, a move that’s expected to save a total of about $14 million over the next 20-plus years.
Early on, one developer envisioned a mixed-use project — shops, townhomes, restaurants — surrounding the stadium, but only a handful of apartments have gone up in recent years. Few other investors are expressed interest in the area, at least publicly. In December, the county approved the rezoning necessary to bring a senior living project to the 19-acre property that had been at the center of those economy-driving dreams.
Brooks, who was not a commissioner when the Gwinnett Braves came to the county, said he’s still hopeful that other areas around the ballpark will be targeted for development at some point, and that getting more folks to the ball game could make that idea more desirable. He believes the Gwinnett team has suffered from a lack of “marketing support” from its parent organization.
“With the name change, they will have to pour marketing dollars into it,” Brooks said. “I see that as a positive.”
Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash said she likes the idea of giving the Gwinnett team a “separate persona,” and that it fits in with the team’s recent efforts to “generate more interest from the community.”
Heard, meanwhile, said that, if the Gwinnett Braves will no longer be the Braves, he wants to take a closer look at the county’s original contract with their parent organization.
“If they’re renaming, I would like to see that they open up opportunities to negotiate other conditions for us to get better use out of [Coolray Field],” he said. ” … There’s all sorts of things that arena could be utilized for it we had more leverage on what we could do.”
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