Football's ubiquitous battle cry of "We must protect this house!" took on new meaning Tuesday when Florida Atlantic University announced that naming rights to its stadium will go to a company that runs prisons, the GEO Group, for $6 million over 12 years.
The deal was unanimously approved by the university's board of trustees Tuesday morning in a setting familiar to many executives of the GEO Group who are FAU alums, including CEO George Zoley -- former chair of FAU's board of trustees.
The GEO Group's world headquarters are in Boca Raton, within sight of what is now GEO Group Stadium.
Because of the nature of the GEO Group's business, representatives of both the university
and the GEO Group described the agreement as a philanthropic "gift," differentiating it from standard sports
marketing agreements such as the one at the Heat's AmericanAirlines Arena.
"It's really a great day in the development of our athletic
department and our university
," said Howard Schnellenberger, the former FAU coach who helped conceive the football program and the stadium. "This day should be marked as a renaissance day kind of thing."
Pat Chun, FAU's athletic director, said the money will go a long way toward balancing his budget. The university had sought a naming partner for the two years the stadium has stood.
"When I took this job the first week of August, I kind of listed all of our priorities and this was literally priority No. 1," Chun said.
The GEO Group employs 300 in Boca Raton and 18,000 worldwide, operating correctional and detention facilities ranging from maximum- to minimum-security prisons including the South Bay Correctional Facility.
It also manages detention and mental health treatment centers worldwide. Last year, it was criticized by inmates and federal regulators for poor safety and sanitation conditions, cutting employee wages and skimping on inmate health care -- charges the GEO Group labeled unfair.
FAU President Mary Jane Saunders said she had no trepidation about the agreement.
"They're a wonderful company and we're very, very proud to be partnered with them," she said.
Chun added, "They'll be responsible citizens, responsible to the local community. They're trying to make a difference here."
The GEO Group stands to benefit simply by providing educational and scholarship opportunities at FAU, said Pablo Paez, vice president of corporate relations of the firm.
He said that because GEO employs those in fields ranging from criminal justice to nursing and social work, the gift will increase awareness of GEO's employment opportunities for FAU alumni.
FAU will receive $500,000 annually. By comparison, the New York Mets recently resumed an agreement to call its Port St. Lucie spring training ballpark Tradition Field for $75,000 this year, with the price adjusted for inflation annually through 2017.
FAU coach Carl Pelini put the gift alongside what he calls the Owls' most successful recruiting season and entry into Conference USA.
"Right now, we're riding a wave of momentum as a university, as an athletic department," Pelini said. "This is just one more step along that road."