First Mariner Catches Rising Star in Super Bowl QB Flacco

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First Mariner Bancorp (FMAR) in Baltimore may have the most popular pitchman in town.

The $1.3 billion-asset company, which has an endorsement deal with Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, is fanning the flames of Super Bowl fever in the run-up to Sunday's game between the Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers.

To stoke passions for the black and purple, First Mariner rented seven electronic billboards throughout the Baltimore area and invited fans to send Flacco messages in 30 characters or less that the bank displays on the billboard from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

"We put it on Facebook and we got a huge response," Renee Anderson, First Mariner's director of advertising, told American Banker. "The last count I had was that 300 people sent messages; I lost count after that."

"Who needs destiny," wrote Emily S. of Baltimore in one missive. "We have Joe!"

"Make it rain purple in N'awlins," urged Basil J. of Baltimore.

"#5 on the field #1 in r hearts," swooned Mary K. of Dundalk, Md.

"We have people from his hometown, people from the Army, people from California," Anderson added.

Starting on Friday, First Mariner will use the billboards to show a series of messages from Joe to fans. "Thank you for believing, Baltimore," one reads.

"It's a billboard so it's not like we can write a paragraph," notes Anderson, who said the messages will run until kickoff time Sunday.

Anderson dismisses news reports that First Mariner got the idea for the digital displays after a billboard in Boston counted down the hours until all-pro linebacker Ray Lewis' retirement before the Ravens met the Patriots in the conference championship. "Our digital manager had this idea even before we saw that billboard," said Anderson. "We thought it would be a great thing to do."

Banks have a history of hitching their message to Super Sunday. In December, EverBank Financial (EVER), which has put its name on the stadium where the Jacksonville Jaguars play, hosted a sweepstakes to give fans a chance to win a trip to New Orleans for this year's matchup. People's United Bank in Bridgeport, Conn., last year used a trip to the Super Bowl by the Patriots to kick off an ad campaign with a television spot that aired throughout New England. FirstBank in Denver aired a tongue-in-cheek spot on local television during timeouts of last year's Super Bowl telecast that told viewers it was okay to visit the bathroom.

The Ravens' march to the big game is a good break for First Mariner, which for three-and-a-half years has had to shore up its capital under orders from regulators. The bank on Thursday told investors it has yet to satisfy the capital targets and that it plans to close three of its 22 branches in 2013.

First Mariner has built on a relationship with Flacco that began three years ago with a promotion to attract deposits to a First Mariner branch near the Ravens' practice facility. "The promotion exceeded the bank's expectations, and the rest is history," recalled Dennis Finnegan, First Mariner's head of retail banking. "After that we approached his agent about a fuller endorsement."

Last fall, First Mariner kicked off a series of "Flacco Fridays," where the 28-year-old passer — who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated recently after tossing for 331 yards and three touchdowns against the Denver Broncos — answers questions from fans.

"Who is your favorite quarterback of all time," Nick Gaines asked Flacco on Sept. 21.

Flacco said he liked Joe Montana and Dan Marino while they played, and to watch films of Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas.

Flacco also appears in advertising for First Mariner where he's asked why not use a megabank in Buffalo, San Francisco or the city that's home to the Steelers, the Ravens' division rivals. "Send my money to Pittsburgh?" Flacco asks incredulously in the spot, which touts First Mariner's hometown connections.

The bank also has placed life-size cardboard cutouts of Flacco, who is six foot six, in its branches.

Flacco has maintained a low profile on the endorsement front. Besides his work for First Mariner and a deal with Nike, Flacco endorses a local Ford dealership and Haribo USA, a Baltimore-based maker of gummy bears, which are the QB's favorite candy, his agent told ESPN.com.

All that may change. Flacco stands to become one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the National Football League next season. First Mariner declines to discuss the terms of its deal with Flacco or to speculate whether the bank can re-sign him after this season.

"We're the largest bank headquartered in Baltimore so there's a nice connection, and we feel that Joe is a personable, upstanding fellow and a great athlete and someone the bank is comfortable affiliating with," Finnegan added.

For now, First Mariner, like much of Baltimore, has Super Bowl fever. Anderson says the bank will do something with the billboards to celebrate a victory by the Ravens. "When they win," Anderson said, "obviously we'll do something."

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