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CEO past is a new arena hurdle
A local student-loan company wants Sun Dome naming rights, but USF is hesitant.
By GREG AUMAN
Published July 13, 2007
A Tampa student-loan company's pursuit of naming rights for the USF Sun Dome, which would give the university about $2-million over the next six years, faces increasing resistance that could scuttle any deal.
But sticking points occurred well before Thursday, when Academic Financial Services chief executive officer Wayne Morgan's long history of arrests became public. The school and the company it contracted to broker a deal have been bickering for months over USF's hesitance to enter into a relationship with an industry facing governmental scrutiny about its practices.
"How difficult is it to turn our backs on a half-million dollars a year? It's easy to say, 'Give me the money,' " said Steven Oscher, president of Sun Dome Inc., which manages the basketball arena. "I don't care about Mr. Morgan or AFS. My concern is we are dealing with an industry facing questions on a national level, and we have to do what's best for the university."
AFS has been in exclusive negotiations with Action Sports Media, a company hired by USF last year to sell the arena's naming rights. As those talks were made public Thursday, so too was news that Morgan, 36, has been convicted of multiple felonies, news he fears puts the sponsorship deal in greater jeopardy.
"Absolutely," Morgan said. "People will look at that and say, 'He must be a bad guy.' It's human nature. I always say it's not who you were, it's who you are."
Morgan heads a company that specializes in student-loan financing and has about 275 employees, with its headquarters on Waters Avenue. AFS is a prominent sponsor of the Rays and Lightning, and Morgan was recently honored with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission's Distinguished Community Service Award.
What Action Sports Media didn't know until Thursday was that Morgan has a long list of arrests and guilty pleas, according to public records. Records show guilty pleas from 1993-96 on charges ranging from breaking and entering and safecracking to larceny and petit theft. He has twice been charged with writing worthless checks, most recently a felony charge in 2002 to which he pleaded no contest and agreed to probation and payment of more than $19,000 in restitution. Other charges, including kidnapping and carrying a concealed weapon in 1994, were dismissed.
"I was a bad person. I did things I should not have done. ... I was young and dumb. Will I ever do anything like that again? Absolutely not," said Morgan, whose most recent probation ended in April 2005. "I will never be able to put it in my past. It's 2007 and people are asking me about it. I'll always have to talk about it."
The Rays and Lightning said Thursday that Morgan's criminal background is unlikely to change their business relationship with AFS, which sponsors a VIP club at the St. Pete Times Forum and a "college night" promotion at Tropicana Field.
"Of course that concerns us, but as long as AFS remains an upstanding sponsor, doing the right things in the community for its clients, I don't see any reason for change," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said.
Said Rick Vaughn, the Rays' vice president of communications, "At this point, we can only judge AFS by the experience we've had with them, and that's been very positive."
The dividing issue at USF is whether the university even has the right to veto a sponsor that Action Sports Media reaches an agreement with. As far back as May, USF and the Sun Dome had expressed in letters to Action Sports an objection to "associating ourselves, in such a prominent way, with an industry so embroiled in controversy."
Action Sports Media provided USF with $2-million in video scoreboards last year and will receive a portion of revenues from sponsorship.
In a release Thursday night, Action Sports argued that the contract it signed with USF last year does not give the university any control over the choice of a sponsor, providing the agreement is at least $400,000 a year for at least five years, or with increased advertising signs in the arena.
"Neither the university nor Sun Dome Inc. has the right to approve the sale or to reject AFS as the naming rights sponsor for the facility," Action Sports wrote.
Oscher disagrees and said USF's general counsel has reviewed the contract to back up the university's position to approve or veto a sponsor that has such a prominent place on USF's most iconic building.
"It's a legal interpretation, and our general counsel has indicated that not only do I have a right, I have an obligation," he said. "We would be remiss in many regards if we proceeded with something that has this many question marks around it."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3346.