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New rights deal, new name on deck for Coca-Cola Field

TORONTO — Get ready for a new name to adorn the home of the Buffalo Bisons after this season.

The Coca-Cola Bottling Company is not renewing its naming rights deal on Coca-Cola Field and the city will be putting the name up for bid to determine the park's fifth moniker since it opened in 1988.

"Beginning in 2019, the Bisons and Coca-Cola are excited to extend our long-term and very important partnership in a meaningful way," the team said in a brief statement issued just prior to Thursday's Opening Day game between the parent Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees. "While this will no longer include the naming rights for the ballpark following this season, we will be working closely with Coca-Cola to transition to the next phase of our successful partnership. "

Coca-Cola took over the rights on Dec. 17, 2008, in a 10-year deal that included all signs in and around the city-owned ballpark and a continuation of a cross-promotional campaign the company signed with the team in 2004. That deal expires after this season.

The company's name was part of the park starting with the 2009 season and it has been that way since. That includes all four seasons the Bisons were affiliated with the New York Mets, including the nationally televised 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game, and the current affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays that began in 2013.

The ballpark opened in 1988 as Pilot Field, named for Pilot Air Freight of Philadelphia. That was the stadium's name during its iconic opening years, when the Herd sold more than 1 million tickets for the first six seasons the park was opened. The 1983 Louisville Redbirds remain the only other minor-league team to accomplish that feat.

Many fans still refer to the facility by that name but Pilot Air defaulted on its payments to the city and its name was removed in March 1995. The stadium was simply referred to as "The Downtown Ballpark" for the first half of the '95 season before the name became North AmeriCare Park after an Amherst-based health maintenance organization on July 3, 1995.

The HMO had a $3.3 million cash bid for the rights to the name over a 13-year period but pulled out of the deal in 1999. Locally owned Dunn Tire assumed the contract, inheriting the remaining $2.5 million owed to earn the rights for what became Dunn Tire Park.

When Dunn Tire's agreement ran out following the 2008 season, Coca-Cola won the rights that December. Terms of its deal have never been revealed, although it's safe to presume it was for more than what Dunn Tire had been paying.

There was a movement among some fans to name the park after former Mayor Jimmy Griffin, whose dogged work with state leaders during the 1980s is credited as being the key impetus to get the facility built. But rights deals are too lucrative to pass up and the Bisons instead honored Griffin with a statue of him throwing out the first pitch at a game and named the area by the statue at the corner of Washington and Swan as "Jimmy Griffin Plaza."

A look back: Before they were New Era Field, KeyBank Center and Coca-Cola Field

The park's capacity has been cut over the years to around 17,000 as new, wider seats have made things less crowded and more comfortable for fans in some of the lower levels. The team averaged 8,101 tickets sold per date last year, finishing fifth in the 14-team International League. Attendance has remained consistent in recent years while ranging from 526,000-575,000 tickets sold since 2009, with the variable being the number of home dates the team was able to play on its schedule based on the weather.

The Bisons open this season April 6 at Rochester and begin the 31st season of play downtown April 12 against Indianapolis. The player development contract with Toronto runs out after this season but early negotiations between the sides have opened and a two-year extension of the deal is expected at some point this summer.

What it looked like Wednesday: Getting beers at Pilot Field, late '80s

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