The gleaming new Florida Gators baseball stadium — tentatively called Florida Ballpark in the University Athletic Association’s communications about the $65 million facility — will, in fact, carry something from old McKethan Stadium when it opens in 2021:
The McKethan name.
The field at Florida’s new baseball digs will be named Alfred A. McKethan Field, according to a Florida release that quotes McKethan’s grandson, Jimmy Kimbrough, and Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin.
“My grandfather believed in the University of Florida and was appreciative of its impact upon his life,’’ Kimbrough said. “He also thought his many academic and athletic gifts to UF would be recognized in perpetuity. And that certainly included Alfred A. McKethan Stadium. But he was a visionary and truly embraced progress, thus our entire family greatly valued an opportunity to participate in this exciting project to further support Gator Baseball, and is extremely pleased UF has decided Alfred McKethan’s commitment to his alma mater and Gator Baseball will not be forgotten.”
“The McKethan family name has been synonymous with Gators Baseball for decades, and it is only fitting that the name will continue to have a presence at our new ballpark,’’ Stricklin said. “We are very appreciative of their longtime generosity and support of the program, and we look forward to the next chapter of Gators Baseball.”
The decision to keep the McKethan name attached to Florida baseball — which the release notes is “in conjunction with the continued generosity of the McKethan family” — follows similar branding alterations for Florida’s football stadium (now the mouthful that is Florida-Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium) and multipurpose arena (Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center) in recent years.
And while dubbing the grass and soil of the new structure McKethan Field honors the man whose donations helped fuel the construction of McKethan Stadium and his family, which remains involved in support of Florida athletics, it also preserves Florida’s ability to call its new facility Florida Ballpark, if it chooses, or to sell title sponsorship of that stadium.
The latter move would be somewhat unusual for a baseball stadium, but not unheard of: In the SEC, Kentucky’s new baseball digs are called Kentucky Proud Park thanks to a complicated naming rights deal that led to the state’s Department of Agriculture picking the name, while Texas A&M plays at Olsen Field at Blue Bell Field thanks in part to a donation from the ice cream company, which is headquartered less than an hour south of College Station. Outside the conference, Texas’s UFCU Disch-Falk Field combines a credit union’s name with that of former coaches, while Utah — which shares what is now Smith’s Ballpark with the Pacific Coast League’s Utah Bees — has played in a stadium with a four different names chosen by corporate sponsors since its opening in 1994.
The encroachment of corporate sponsorship in college sports has only gone so far, though. Florida’s naming rights deal for Exactech Arena was the first of its kind for any Gators venue; all of the rest bear the names of prominent donors and/or significant figures in Florida’s past.
But Florida Ballpark is a fairly bland name, and one that has yet to earn any credibility with Gator Nation. And at a time of reckoning with past racial inequities that may see Florida reconsider some of the names attached to edifices on its campus — like, say, Stephen C. O’Connell, given that his tenure as Florida’s president was marked partly by a bitter battle with black students in the student body that led to scores of students leaving the school — it may also turn out to be true that attaching a corporate name to a Florida venue is less objectionable than plucking names from the past for construction in the present, or leaving such ghosts clinging to a program striving for the future.