Sports, Live Music and Big Events: Banks Meet Customers Where Fun is the Goal

By Karen Epper Hoffman 

After a long period of isolation and shutdown, people are looking to get out and enjoy live music and sporting events, at least in a more limited capacity, and financial institutions are planning to support these efforts as they frequently have done.

Long before COVID hit, banks were big supporters of summer concert series, as well as sporting events in the communities they serve. In the era of COVID, that has become more difficult, as in-person events have been curtailed or stopped all together in the face of the pandemic. However, recently with a newly vaccinated population, more banks are revisiting their support of music, sports and other major events in their communities—from local symphonies to venues hosting folk and rock artists to well-known musicians—as well as local sporting events from little league teams to minor league teams. Increasingly, such marketing efforts are no longer the bailiwick of big banks alone, but of small and mid-sized financial institutions.

Banks building brand

John Oxford, director of marketing and public relations and senior vice president for Renasant Bank of Tupelo, Mississippi, says that his bank is one of the most “progressive” in the region in terms of supporting arts and athletics, including a local art museum and the Nashville soccer team. The $16-billion-asset bank also has struck sponsorships with regional colleges including the University of Mississippi and sports teams including the Memphis Grizzles.

“There’s definitely a brand play here, giving [our bank]the opportunity to be top-of-mind,” Oxford says. However Oxford adds that it still may be difficult to measure the ultimate payback for banks from sponsoring such events. “It’s not a hard number, not something we build into the return on investments.”

Meanwhile, Tyrrell Schmidt, U.S. chief marketing officer at Canada-based TD Bank, points out that in addition to the bank supporting smaller community fundraisers and events, it has had naming rights for the Boston based TD Garden (where the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins play) for more than 16 years. “We know that when our communities thrive, we all thrive, and we look to partner with like-minded organizations,” Schmidt says. He adds that the bank’s marketing team works closely with the Bruins’ and Celtics’ organizations on fan appreciation and local small business support especially—issues that dovetail with the bank’s interests.

Florida-based de novo Surety Bank has sponsored several events in the recent months, such as children’s sports teams, city festivals, and county fairs among other events, according to  CEO and Founder Ryan James. “Pre-pandemic we sponsored an event called Night to Shine, a prom for people with special needs that is orchestrated by the Tim Tebow Foundation,” James says, adding that this particular event aligns with his bank’s values of “serving the underserved, not necessarily to gain new customers, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Making a community commitment

It is all well and good to support local sports, music and cultural events. But most bank executives will find themselves inquiring after the ROI, especially since they will have executive and board member superiors looking to gauge the payback. And, especially for money center and super-regional banks, sponsorship has become a huge deal. Bank of America and Citigroup are expected to spend more than $80 million annually in sports sponsorships alone, according to ESP Properties. And, already, close to one-quarter of all major U.S. sports teams play in venues that have been named after (and sponsored by) banks., The NFL’s Carolina Panthers play in Bank of America Stadium, the New York Mets baseball team play in Citi Field and the Washington Capitals hockey team play in Capitol One Arena.

Indeed, for big banks that want to establish a broad, national presence, it is not uncommon to spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars naming sports or entertainment venues or supporting and promoting individual events. But bank sponsorships are not all foam fingers and Jumbotron promotions: In January, PNC Bank announced it would be the ‘presenting sponsor’ for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Next Stage Digital Concert Series. “The effects of the pandemic have been far-reaching across the region, and our arts and culture community has certainly faced their own significant challenges as a result,” says Brendan McGuire, regional president of PNC Bank in North Texas.

Small and mid-sized banks have felt the pressure too. “It’s certainly been a challenging year, and we feel our communities need us now more than ever before,” says Tyrrell Schmidt, U.S, chief marketing officer for TD Bank. “The power of our sponsorships and the magic that happens when you meet people in-person at their passion points from attending a concert together or cheering on your favorite sports team is unmeasurable.”

“It is important for banks to get in front of their audience, in person,” James says. “The digital world has its place in sponsoring and advertising, but there is nothing like connecting with people in person right now. I believe it is more than just ‘in name’ only.”

Eddie Behringer, CEO for two-year-old Copper Banking, sees opportunity: “The pandemic created a lot of interesting situations, especially [related to]sponsorships,” he says. “Many banks feel they have made a commitment to their community.”

Rebekah L. Fawcett, senior vice president for U.S. Bank Minneapolis, says, “We look for opportunities to sponsor programs and events that create emotional connections with our customers and reinforce what matters most in the communities where we our employees live and work. That gives us the latitude to go big with national partnerships and dive deep to be relevant locally, as well. We focus a lot of our efforts on the arts and music, sports, and family destinations when we consider sponsorship investments.”

Karen Hoffman is a frequent contributor to ABA Bank Marketing.