FAU football stadium naming deal turns into PR fiasco

Florida Atlantic University is back to square one on what to call its football stadium after a $6 million naming deal with a prison company collapsed due to public outcry.

College students and prisons apparently aren't a good PR mix.

In a state where incarceration and college football are both big businesses, Florida Atlantic University has scrapped a 12-year, $6 million deal to name its football stadium after a private prison company.

Branding experts said the university failed to do due diligence on the deal, which critics derisively dubbed "Owlcatraz." (FAU's athletic teams are called the Owls.)

FAU president 'disappointed' GEO withdrew $6 million gift

FAU president 'disappointed' GEO withdrew $6 million gift
Duration: 2:43 Views: 49 WPBF West Palm Beach

"This is perhaps one of the most blatant why-didn’t-somebody-stop-and-think-this-one-through kind of scenarios I've seen," Terry Burton, author of "Naming Rights: Legacy Gifts & Corporate Money," told MSN News.

After a public backlash from students, faculty, community members and civil rights groups, the university announced Monday that The GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based for-profit prison company located just a few miles from campus, was withdrawing a $6 million donation and the stadium no longer will be named GEO Group Stadium.

"What was originally intended as a gesture of GEO's goodwill to financially assist the university's athletic scholarship program has surprisingly evolved into an ongoing distraction to both of our organizations," GEO Group Chairman and CEO George Zoley, an FAU alumnus, said in a statement.

GEO Group manages or owns dozens of correctional, detention and residential treatment facilities in the U.S. and abroad.

FAU President Mary Jane Saunders said she was disappointed by the decision.

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"I think you have to remember we have 30,000 students, so when you see demonstrations by 20 or 30, they may represent more than that. But really, the majority of the students, I think, were fine with the gift. But it's ancient history now," Saunders said Tuesday, according to WPEC-TV.

The American Civil Liberties Union and student groups had campaigned against the deal, saying the university shouldn't be associating itself with a prison company with a spotty record. The ACLU noted that last year, a federal judge ordered mass transfers out of a youth correctional facility in Mississippi operated by GEO, calling the prison a "cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts and conditions."

"The students and faculty at the university can now breathe a little easier knowing they won't have to watch football at 'Owlcatraz' next season, the ACLU said in a statement.

A student group calling itself the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition staged a campus protest earlier Monday, before the decision to scuttle the deal was announced.

A little over a week earlier, the Faculty Senate voted 25-9 for a resolution opposing the deal.

Florida Atlantic completed construction on the $70 million, 30,000-seat on-campus football stadium in 2011. It has been trying to find a corporate buyer for naming rights to offset the costs of building the stadium.

Burton, who also runs the website diginresearch.com, said Florida Atlantic administrators dropped the ball.

"When someone is about to accept a big sum of money it is incumbent upon the recipient to do the due diligence and it appears as though they did not. For that, shame on them," Burton told MSN News.

Rex Whisman, founder and chief strategist at BrandED Consultants Group, which does branding work for educational institutions, said Florida Atlantic didn't see the forest for the trees.

"The lesson learned for FAU and any organization for that matter is not to get caught up in quick-fix tactical and financial approaches to branding. They are often costly and short-lived," Whisman told MSN News in an email. "A sustainable approach to develop an overarching brand strategy for the entire organization provides a road map for stakeholder behavior, as well as the recruitment and retention of corporate partners and lifelong donors."

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Corporate names have long dominated professional sports stadiums and arenas across the country. In recent years, corporate branding has increasingly been creeping into college sports facilities as well.

The University of Central Florida, for example, signed a 15-year, $15 million deal with Bright House Networks to sponsor a new 48,000-seat stadium that opened in 2007.

The University of Louisville's men's basketball team plays in the KFC Yum! Center, a $238 million, 22,500-seat multipurpose arena that opened in 2010.

High Point Solutions Inc., a Sparta, N.J.-based high-tech company, in 2011 bought the naming rights to Rutgers University's football stadium in a 10-year, $6.5 million deal.

Corporate naming rights might bring in big bucks, but they can also be fraught with branding risks. Such was the case with the Houston Astros' Major League Baseball stadium, which was christened as Enron Field when it opened in 2000. Enron bought the naming rights in a 30-year, $100 million deal. The Houston energy and financial trading company infamously collapsed the following year after an elaborate accounting scandal was exposed.

The Astros bought back the naming rights for $2.1 million after Enron filed for bankruptcy. Minute Maid acquired the naming rights in 2002, and the ballpark is now called Minute Maid Park.

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