University of Phoenix backs out of stadium naming rights deal 9 years early

The for-profit giant is experiencing some financial woes.

Fans arrive at University of Phoenix Stadium before the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament between South Carolina and Gonzaga, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York
Fans arrive at University of Phoenix Stadium before the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament between South Carolina and Gonzaga, Saturday, April 1, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt York

On Tuesday, The Arizona Republic reported that educational for-profit giant University of Phoenix is ending its partnership with the Arizona Cardinals just 11 years into a 20-year, $155 million stadium naming rights deal.

This is the clearest sign yet that the school, which has become synonymous with predatory enrollment practices and horrible graduation rates, is shifting its financial priorities.

“We absolutely see this as a victory,” Maggie Thompson, the executive director of Generation Progress, a national organization that advocates for progressive policies that affect young people, told ThinkProgress. (Disclosure: Generation Progress is a project of the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent site housed at the Center for American Progress.)

Thompson and other critics of the for-profit education model saw the stadium deal as proof that the University of Phoenix cared much more about marketing than education. Even though the school had no sports teams and lacked important accreditation, the publicity it received from the stadium deal positioned it as a mainstream university.

“[It was] clearly a way to embed the name University of Phoenix into the consciousness, so that they’re considered legitimate,” Dr. Kevin Kinser, a Professor of Education at Penn State University and expert on for-profit colleges, told ThinkProgress. “It positions it as a major university.”

Over the past 11 years, the University of Phoenix Stadium has pretty much become a household name, thanks in no small part to the exposure it has received from hosting all Cardinals home games, two Super Bowls, multiple NCAA college football bowl games, and this year’s NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

But enrollment at the University of Phoenix has dropped dramatically over the past few years, thanks in part to stricter government regulations during the Obama administration, increased public awareness of the company’s questionable business and educational practices, and an improved economy. (Enrollment in for-profit colleges tends to increase when more people are out of jobs and looking for ways to further their careers.)

Apollo Education Groups, the parent company of the University of Phoenix, became a private company earlier this year after its public shares dropped nearly $80.

Joan Blackwood, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for University of Phoenix, said the school’s financial issues don’t have anything to do with ending this deal.

“We will continue to invest in what happens in the classroom and focus on graduates and the degrees they need to continue to succeed in their lives,” Blackwood said.

The University of Phoenix will keep its name on the stadium until the Cardinals find a new sponsor, and the school will remain the team’s “official education partner.” It’s likely the Cardinals could find a new naming rights deal worth as much as double what the University of Phoenix is paying.

Now, Thompson is hoping the University of Phoenix will stick to its word and invest the $7.7 million a year it will save by not paying for the naming rights and instead put it towards education.

“I hope so,” she said. “I mean their track record doesn’t suggest that’s what they’re going to do, but I hope so.”