With the National Football League's 2012 season kicking off this week, Huntington Bank is making a play to win over fans of the Detroit Lions.

On Wednesday, the Columbus, Ohio, bank announced a $2.4 million, five-year agreement with the Lions that gives the bank exclusive naming rights of the club and suite levels at the team's Ford Field. Signage at entrances and exits of the those level will be installed in time for Lions' season opener Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.

The deal is also the latest in a series of efforts to raise Huntington's profile in Michigan, where the bank has been increasingly directing its attention in recent years.

"It's safe to say that a couple of years ago, maybe three years ago, there was a very strategic decision made that there was opportunity in Michigan that we believed in that others maybe didn't see," says Mike Fezzey, president of Huntington's East Michigan Region.

Examples of the bank's investment in Michigan are numerous. The Lions partnership follows a 10-year marketing deal struck this summer with the Michigan State University athletics department to help fund improvements to the school's stadium in return for marketing opportunities in the stadium and on scoreboards and in game programs, television and radio broadcasts and online.

Huntington, a unit of Huntington Bancshares (HBAN), has also expanded its reach in more tangible ways, making more than $1.5 billion in loans to Michigan businesses in the past year, and announcing plans in the spring to open branches in Meijer supermarkets and grocery stores that will lead to 200 branches in Michigan. It's also been rumored that the bank could be a potential buyer of Citizens Republic Bancorp (CRBC) in Flint, Mich.

The bank has been snagging other deals around the Midwest as well, including a partnership with Ohio State University announced in February.

Huntington remains more prominent in its home state — where it has the No. 2 deposit share behind Fifth Third Bancorp (FITB), according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. — but early results show that its efforts in Michigan are paying dividends. The most recent data from the FDIC shows that Huntington had the No. 6 deposit share in the state in 2011, up from No. 8 a year earlier.

"The growth is significant, and the number of customers both on a household basis and business customers who are finding a home with Huntington is quite remarkable," says Fezzey.

Fezzey declined to provide specific growth rates, but Huntington's Chairman and Chief Executive Stephen Steinour told reporters in July that the bank's quarterly growth in checking accounts across its geographic footprint outpaced growth for all of 2009.

The decision to raise the bank's involvement in a state that was among the hardest hit by the recession — unemployment was 14.9% in August 2009 — was a gamble, but it is paying off. Unemployment has since fallen to 9% in June, thanks in part to renewed strength in the auto and retail industries.

"After five-plus years which were very difficult years for state, for Huntington to make that decision and make that investment was a bet on the state's recovery and it could have gone either way," says Terry McEvoy, an analyst with Oppenheimer.

"In the last couple of years they've been upbeat about Midwest recovery, and they've been spot on. They have gained the credibility of investors in making those types of decisions," he adds.

Meanwhile, Huntington's Fezzey signals there could be more investments to come.

The bank still has a "very significant appetite to grow," he says. "We believe Michigan is well on its way to a very bright future and there's more room for growth both in the state and in our investments."

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