Thursday, May 24, 2018
Business

Prison company's deal to name university stadium puzzles marketing experts

After a two-year search, Florida Atlantic University has finally bestowed a name upon its new palm-ringed, oceanside, 29,419-seat football stadium in Boca Raton, and it's dripping with controversy. The Owls will play football this year in GEO Group Stadium, thanks to a $6 million gift from the charitable arm of the nation's second-largest prison operator.

GEO Group, which reported revenue of more than $1.6 billion in 2011, operates state and federal prisons and illegal-immigrant detention centers with enough beds to incarcerate more than 70,000 prisoners. Move over, Enron Field.

There are plenty of odd sports stadium names. The KFC Yum! Center, for instance. Or Whataburger Field. Or Dick's Sporting Goods Park. But the FAU/GEO Group pairing, sports marketing experts say, is unprecedented, in part because GEO Group, which has a checkered record, isn't exactly selling a product or service.

"I can't think of anything comparable," said Paul Swangard, managing director at the University of Oregon Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, who called the move an example of great donor intent and terrible execution. Boca Raton-based GEO Group's chairman, George Zoley, is an FAU alumnus and served on the school's board of trustees.

Swangard said he teaches his students that there's a difference between sponsorship and philanthropy. "They talk about this being a philanthropic endeavor, but they've mistakenly made a philanthropic endeavor a naming-rights deal."

What does GEO Group stand to gain?

Spokesman Pablo Paez said there was no intention of marketing the company. "This is truly a philanthropic gift," he said. "This is not a corporate sponsorship." He touted the benefits of the $6 million "gift," which will be paid over 12 years and is the largest one-time donation in the history of FAU athletics. Those benefits include scholarships for students and academic funding. "What's good for FAU is good for the community, and what's good for the community is good for business."

The deal was announced Tuesday. In less than 24 hours, activists began circulating an online petition to convince FAU that the partnership was wrong.

"They're on this marketing campaign to make their name better," said Mohammad Abdollahi, a youth organizer with Dream Activist, which started the petition.

Abdollahi said his organization infiltrated a GEO Group facility in Broward County and learned of gross human-rights violations, including medical neglect and improper detention. Several detainees spoke last year to the Palm Beach Post, which reported that GEO Group has often been the target of lawsuits and government fines and investigations.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, is among GEO Group's many critics.

"Is the university's need for money that great that they'd be willing to put up the name of a corporation that has the worst reputation in the world for the treatment of people in their care?" she asked. "It's a sad day when money trumps morality."

Paez defended GEO Group's record.

"We're proud of what we do as a company," he said. "We're proud of our community re-entry and rehabilitation programs. When it comes to instances of challenges our facilities face, all facilities face those challenges."

Paez acknowledged that "there's a public awareness benefit" to the deal. He said any naming-rights deal garners a certain amount of opposition, but he hopes critics consider the benefits of the company's sizable gift to FAU.

Time will tell. But on Tuesday, students sounded off on Twitter, nicknaming the stadium "Owlcatraz." And South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde ran an online poll asking readers to pick their favorite name from options like "The Pen," "The Cell," "The Slammer" and "The Birdcage."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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