When NationsBank Corp.'s marketing agreement with the Dallas Cowboys expired in January, Banc One Corp. swooped in from the sidelines.

When Banc One's status as the official bank of the Cincinnati Reds ended last fall, Star Banc Corp. eagerly stepped up to the plate.

Both moves were emblematic of the lure of sports marketing and banks' intent to play in the big leagues.

Sponsorships like those Banc One announced this month with the National Football League's Cowboys and Star Banc's recent three-year deal with its hometown baseball team don't come cheap. They range between $250,000 and $2 million a year, according to IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter.

But banks, especially those serving major league cities, increasingly see sports as the way to get the biggest bang for their marketing bucks.

Banks are in the forefront of a trend that only seems to be getting bigger, as evidenced by the corporate names now attached to stadiums and arenas and the ever-rising price tags on high-profile sponsorship tie-ins with events like the Olympic Games.

"Sports has a much broader appeal than any other area," said Maria Koob, Banc One's national director of event marketing and promotions. "Very simply, it's a means to reach our national branding objective."

The Columbus, Ohio-based superregional has exclusive sponsorship deals with the Colorado Rockies of baseball's National League and with the Arizona Diamondbacks, an expansion baseball team set to begin play in Phoenix next year. Banc One is paying $61 million over 30 years to attach its name to the Diamondbacks' stadium, which will be called Bank One Ballpark.

Banc One also has smaller advertising agreements with the National Basketball Association's Dallas Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, and the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts.

As banks cover ever-larger geographic territories, they want to sponsor teams that have broad appeal. First Union Corp. said it signed a five-year deal in March to sponsor baseball's Atlanta Braves, who have a national following thanks to exposure on the cable television network of the team's owner, Ted Turner.

Though NationsBank Corp. lost the Cowboys, who claim to be "America's team," it still has agreements with the NFL's Carolina Panthers and Washington Redskins and baseball's Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals.

Affiliations aren't confined to superregional banks. St. Paul Bancorp was the first Chicago financial institution to think of affinity checking accounts with local sports teams a few years ago when it signed a deal with the Chicago Bulls. Since then, the $4.5 billion-asset thrift has started Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, and Chicago White Sox accounts.

Twenty-five percent of new checking accounts at St. Paul are sports accounts, said Donald Ross, senior vice president and head of retail banking. The accounts have become so popular, he said, that bigger banks have tried to buy St. Paul out of its three- and four-year contracts with the teams.

Banking has been one of the most active industries in sports sponsorships in recent years, said IEG vice president Jim Andrews. And the sponsorship trend does not appear to be slowing down.

North American companies will spend $3.8 billion overall this year on team sponsorships, with football and basketball getting the most money, followed by baseball and hockey, Mr. Andrews said.

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