TAMPA — Cheers and fireworks went up New Year's Eve as the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the site of the 2012 Republican National Convention made its debut under the new name the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Renaming the venue coincided with the decision of the St. Petersburg Times, which bought the naming rights in 2002, to change its name today to the Tampa Bay Times.
Both Times and Lightning officials hailed the new name for its geographic inclusiveness.
"We're so proud this building name is now going to reflect the entire region which we serve," said Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke at an unveiling ceremony before the Lightning's 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
"In the history of the Times and Tampa Bay this is an extraordinary day," Times chairman and CEO Paul Tash said.
"A decade ago, the St. Pete Times put its name on that building because we believe in Tampa Bay and in our role in it," Tash said. "Today we are taking an even larger step by changing the name both of the newspaper and of the building that bears its name.
"We were proud of that decision a decade ago. We are proud of this decision today. There are great things ahead, both for the Times and for Tampa Bay."
The change heartened fans who sometimes scratched their heads over why an iconic building in downtown Tampa was called the St. Pete Times Forum.
"It's great that they finally got the name right, because I know it caused some confusion back in the day," said fan Stephan Condill, 37, who attended graduate school at the University of South Florida and now lives in Orlando.
But it does more than that, local leaders say.
When National Hockey League Hall of Famer and Lightning founder Phil Esposito first came to the bay area, he said the one thing he didn't understand was the divide between St. Petersburg and Tampa.
"But with the naming of this building, it really pulls it all together," Esposito said. "We're all in the same boat."
The county-owned hockey arena was built for the Lightning in 1996. When the Times bought the naming rights it became the first newspaper in the nation to put its name on a major sports and entertainment arena or stadium.
The original deal was valued at more than $30 million over the life of the 12-year contract. In November, the Lightning owners and the Times Publishing Co. announced the name change as well as an extension of the naming rights through 2018 on terms consistent with the current contract.
Leiweke welcomed the new name, plus a new logo for the arena, as a chance to build a national brand. It follows other changes ushered in by owner Jeff Vinik, including a privately funded $40 million renovation of the arena and a $10 million, five-year commitment from the Vinik Family Foundation and the Lightning Foundation to the Tampa Bay community.
"This year's going to be a banner year for this building," Leiweke said, with the NCAA men's hockey "Frozen Four" coming in April and the Republican National Convention on Aug. 27-30. "We have an opportunity to attract other great events."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also applauded the name change.
"What it shows is that we are a region," he said. "We compete as a region. We live as a region. We succeed as a region. And this is just one more indication of that."