Florida School Cuts Stadium Deal With Questionable Partner


It is not uncommon for pro sports franchises to sell naming rights to sports facilities to well-heeled benefactors.  At least 70 pro sports facilities currently bear the name of a corporate entity that has paid millions of dollars to have a facility named after it.

The trend has begun to spread into college sports.  The University of Louisville plays its home football games in Papa Johns Stadium, and its basketball teams play in the 2-year-old KFC Yum! Center.  The recent announcement by Florida Atlantic University (FAU) that it had sold naming rights to its new football stadium has led to a renewed focus on this practice.

Artist rendering of the FAU football stadium

Florida Atlantic is currently a member of the Sun Belt Conference for athletics; but, has plans to move to Conference USA in a year.  It has recently opened a state-of-the art stadium on campus that seats some 29,000.  In an effort to maximize its football revenues, the school announced a week ago that it has signed an agreement with a company called the GEO Group for naming rights to its stadium.  The corporation will pay the school (in the form of a donation) $6 million over the next 12 years.  In return for this donation, the stadium will be known as GEO Group Stadium.

The GEO Group is a company that owns and operates private prisons.  It turns out that the corporation, which operates immigrant detention centers as well as regular prisons, has been accused of human rights violations

Besides the United States, GEO Group also has private prisons in South Africa, the United Kingdom and Australia, where in 2003 it lost a contract after evidence was found that children detained in its facilities suffered cruel treatments, The New York Times reported in 2011. The company, which controls thousands of beds in private prisons and is worth almost $3 billion, is now in the middle of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit about mistreatment of prisoners.

The company operates a detention center in Pompano Beach, Fla., about 10 miles from FAU’s stadium.  FAU President Mary Jane Saunder initially agreed to talk about the news, but after hearing questions about the immigration detention center, a university spokesperson said they would have to return calls later.  The school since then has declined to respond to these questions.

The Miami Herald has reported extensively on this situation.  Its reporters have noted that there are in fact FAU students who are immigrants who have had family members detained at the facility in Pompano Beach.

GEO’s president, George Zoley, is an alumnus of FAU and has served in the past as President of its Board of Trustees.  This donation is the largest individual gift ever received by the school.

This controversy is similar in tone to what schools face when they agree to allow beer sales at on-campus stadiums.  West Virginia University earns over $1 million per year from fees associated with these sales at its football stadium.  Schools are looking for any revenue stream that can help offset the spiraling costs associated with their athletic programs.  This search for money can run counter to ethical considerations.  Alcohol and drug abuse are major issues on many college campuses, and many people are critical of schools who seem to sanction the use of alcohol at sporting events.

This is the atmosphere that colleges and universities must operate in if they insist on running athletic programs that are in fact major business enterprises.  It may be only a matter of time before gambling casinos are acquiring naming rights to college stadiums.  Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas already has an arena that hosts college basketball games every year.

It remains to be seen if colleges can have their cake and eat it too.

Read more on this topic at http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/20/3243610/fau-stadium-strikes-deal-with.html.

Greg Tyler is the Library Director at the United States Sports Academy. He has also taught courses at the Academy in sports law. He worked for years in youth sports as a coach, league administrator and as a soccer referee. He has a law degree and practiced law for a number of years. You can reach him at gtyler@ussa.edu.