The America's Cup competition has a strong banking undercurrent - and not just because of the millions of dollars being spent on the yachts and crews.

For the first time in years, banks are heavily involved in the sponsorship side of the event, lending financial support and getting public recognition in return.

The payoff, if any, will be evident over the next month as public and media attention turn toward the climactic series of races off the San Diego coast, where banks will share billing with familiar sports sponsors like General Motors and Gillette.

Key Bank of Maine, for one, has been a major backer of Pact '95 Young America, one of the three teams competing for the right to defend the America's Cup.

MBNA America Bank plays all sides: It offers MasterCards bearing the image of an applicant's favorite team.

Bank of America and Peninsula Bank have spent money on, and lent their names to, community events in San Diego aimed at generating public enthusiasm.

"We like to be associated with quality and excellence, but we also want to be thought of as an institution that gives something back," said Richard A. Molyneux, president of Key Bank of Maine, Portland.

NationsBank Corp. has also recently seen a marketing opportunity in sailing, but at the Olympic level. Having paid $40 million to be the official bank sponsor of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the Charlotte, N.C.- based bank has sponsored a couple of pre-Olympic sailing races, the latest of which will be held in July in Savannah, Ga.

The increasingly mass-market tone of the sponsorships marks a historical, and intentional, turnabout. The heritage of the 144-year-old competition, renewed about every three years, is decidedly upper crust. Moet & Chandon champagne and Mount Gay rum fit the historical sponsor mold. This makes sense for a sport in which the basic equipment - a 75-foot-long sailing vessel - can cost $4 million.

Sailing is unlike any other sport in the extent to which technology is used to battle the cubic tons of water and other natural forces - the America's Cup boats are made of carbon fiber and their sails of kevlar.

Banks generally didn't have the marketing budgets to play in that league. They did help out through private banking channels, but those budgets diminished after the high-flying '80s.

Typically, the America3 Foundation, the fund-raising arm for what was best known until recently as the all-women U.S. contender, got a $15,000 donation from Chase Manhattan Corp.'s private and corporate banks, said Frederick W. Wrightsman, the foundation's chief operating officer.

That sum pales next to the $12 million from the group's lead sponsor, Chevrolet.

This year, the America's Cup organizers and the competitors set out to democratize the event, making it more affordable and accessible to the public.

The organizers put a limit on the costs that each team can incur. And several San Diego task forces have rallied around efforts to include the public in special events, such as open houses held by individual teams.

Meanwhile, the preliminary stages, out of which will emerge an American cup defender and a foreign challenger for the finals beginning May 6, have made a splash with the media.

Each of the U.S. teams has taken on a personality of its own. Former champion Bill Koch's America3 all-women crew - which recently added a male tactician - has been a public favorite and a media darling. Print and television coverage and advertisements have brought its exploits to the attention of more than two billion people, according to the team.

Add to that the interest generated by the rivalry between Mr. Koch and another past winner, Dennis Conner, who pilots Stars and Stripes; and the clean-cut good looks of the Pact '95 Young America crew, which has operated on what is considered a shoestring budget of $15 million.

The credit card operation of MBNA Corp. in Newark, Del., increased its list of 3,700 affinity cards by four: three representing the American teams and a fourth, generic America's Cup '95 card.

The MasterCards have no annual fees and their interest rate is prime plus 8.9%.

Key Bank's involvement began because Pact '95 is based in Maine.

Mr. Molyneux, president of the Keycorp subsidiary there and a self- described "boater," said he jumped at the chance to help some favorite sons. The deciding factor in the bank's $100,000 of contributions was a unique educational program the team has pioneered, Mr. Molyneux said.

Pact '95 started a science literacy program, designed to reach about one million youngsters in grades five through 12. The program curriculum includes geometry, meteorology, the physics of flotation - some of the sciences involved in sailing.

Along with the money donated to the Maine team, Mr. Molyneux himself assigned some 88 branch managers to help persuade school superintendents to use the courses in their curriculums.

"There is so much technology and research and effort that goes into sailing; it ought to be applied on a much broader basis," said Mr. Molyneux.

He said Pact '95 has helped change the "rich man" image of sailing. Unlike the other two U.S. teams, which at times have benefited from the personal wealth of their leaders, Pact '95 came without much financial backing.

"It's become a real Cinderella story," said Mr. Molyneux. "If they can pull this off, it would be a great victory."

Less partisan in their sponsorship have been two California banks, Bank of America and Peninsula Bank of San Diego, which have courted the local community.

"Widespread visibility wasn't our objective," said Jo S. Frisch, an advertising executive with BankAmerica. "By supporting the community we can generate a lot of goodwill in a number of ways."

Seeking to enhance its presence around San Diego, where it has about 75 branches, BankAmerica has sponsored three different programs. Last October it underwrote a portion of the cost for a party to generate enthusiasm for the America's Cup. Organized with the help of a community task force, the event drew more than 10,000 people who snacked and danced on the nearby Broadway pier at the expense of the San Francisco-based bank.

Last month Bank of America came out with a restaurant coupon book, in the shape of a passport, which it hopes will generate business for local merchants. Of the 250,000 copies, 200,000 were inserted in the San Diego Union Tribune and the rest distributed by local merchants.

The bank is also helping to underwrite the America's Cup Ball, the "party of all parties" that will kick off the finals.

Meanwhile, $262 million-asset Peninsula Bank, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary, contributed $5,000 toward a Harbor Street fair in January.

Since then, the eight-branch institution has enticed several racing team members to sign up for its free checking accounts and is counting on increasing its local exposure.

Peninsula Bank officials view their America's Cup activity in the context of other "positive" deeds they do.

"I think each bank has a different reason for getting involved in this," said Kim K. Hanecke, senior marketing officer. "In the end, it's a donation to the community."

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