Bail Mary: Bethesda bank blew big bucks on bowl before behemoth bailout. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In September, EagleBank bought title sponsorship for what was billed as the first college bowl game in D.C. history.

I’d never heard of EagleBank before. I’ve asked around, and nobody else I know had ever heard of EagleBank before the bowl game, either.

But since the game’s founding, I’ve noticed the bank’s name in news stories I would have previously just skimmed.

Now I know that it’s a Bethesda-based chain with 15 area branches.

And I also know that Eagle Bancorp Inc., the parent company of the chain, got $38.2 million from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). That’s the $700 billion bailout package of government handouts to financial-services companies that Congress appropriated in the fall.

And I paid attention last week when EagleBank announced its profits were down 26 percent for the fourth quarter of 2008.

And once more a day later, when I learned through an MSNBC story that the company’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that EagleBank doled out $2 million worth of bonuses, including stock options, to its top officials.

I’m all for bringing postseason football around here. The Redskins, after all, haven’t hosted a home playoff game since the turn of the century. And I thought the Wake Forest–Navy game at RFK Stadium, won by the Demon Deacons, was entertaining enough—especially for the 34th most important bowl game on the NCAA’s 34-bowl-game schedule.

But still, to me, the EagleBank Bowl—which was going to be called the plain ol’ Congressional Bowl before the bank bought up the title—was just a smaller-scale version of Citi’s $400 million purchase of naming rights for the New York Mets’ new stadium. Last week Dennis Kucinich was among the federal lawmakers trying to tell the megabank to kill the Mets deal or give back its $45 billion in TARP money.

My tax dollars at work! I fumed whenever I thought about the EagleBank Bowl. (It didn’t help my mood to learn that the game’s other big sponsor was the U.S. Navy, which last I checked also gets its revenues from the American taxpayer.)

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When your realm is No. 1 on everybody’s shit list—as the banking industry surely is these days—my intuition told me that spending money to see your company’s name on a bowl game or a building would not be the way to go. So I contacted a gaggle of sports marketing gurus and asked: Am I right?

They mostly agreed: Nah.

“You can’t go into hibernation because things are bad,” says sports marketer Darren Prince.

Prince, whose firm is based in Livingston, N.J., has a long history of representing athletes in need of image rehab. He’s helped tabloid fodder like Dennis Rodman, Hulk Hogan, and Evel Knievel get back in fans’ good graces—and not by keeping them out of the public eye.

Prince’s strategy doesn’t apply only to human screwups. The same goes for businesses, he says. Sure, post-bailout banks have a lower approval rating than Rodman did after he bailed out of that 10-day, vows-in-Vegas marriage to Carmen Electra. So what?

“You can’t hide,” he says. “There’s an expression: When business is good, it pays to advertise; when business is bad, it’s better to advertise. I was watching the Super Bowl with my wife, and she couldn’t believe how many car commercials there are now, with what’s going on. I told her: ‘Well, yeah.’”

Jim Biegalski, senior vice president-consulting for the Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports marketing company, says there’s no evidence that banking firms are shying away from entering into title sponsorship or stadium-naming roles.

Nor should they, he says.

“The whole financial sector is in the news every day, and only in a negative way,” he says. “So it’s a delicate dance for banks, from a brand perspective, but I don’t think anybody would say it makes sense to bury your head in the sand. These naming agreements, not everybody’s going to understand the marketing strategy behind them. And, publicly the perception may be extremely negative. But these are generally very complicated deals—it’s not just Citi paying $400 million to see its name on a building. There’s a lot more going on than is publicly disclosed, and these deals can be a sound business decision.”

Seth Godin, management consultant and author of 10 books on marketing (including 2005’s All Marketers Are Liars), disagrees with the yea-sayers. Godin says folks have a right to be upset and complain when companies that got a handout are spending it on sports marketing.

“Stadium-naming is an ego play, not a sensible business effort,” says Godin. “There’s no data—none—to indicate otherwise. Some investors have a simple rule: When they name the stadium, sell the stock. The current economy just exposes this and makes it less likely that CEOs can get away with it. Precisely the same thing [with bowl games], except it’s an even worse investment.”

EagleBank Bowl founder Marie Rudolph says it’s not her place to worry how EagleBank spends its money, public or otherwise.

“Our title sponsorship was completed before any banks were even filing to get money,” she says. “We had that completed in early September. So that wasn’t an issue for us. Nobody brought that up.”

Sources involved with the bowl committee say the bank spent $1 million to sponsor the event.

Michael Flynn, executive vice president of Eagle Bancorp, would not disclose how much his company paid to land the bowl game but says it was “nowhere close” to $1 million. Flynn argues that the business’ sporting ventures are in keeping with the purpose behind the congressional bailout, and are in no way a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“Look at it this way,” Flynn says, “we received a $38.2 million investment from the U.S. Treasury. But we still need to do advertising and marketing. It’s very hard to say that the treasury’s investment went directly into this bowl game. We did not spend the U.S. Treasury dollars on the bowl game. We received an injection of capital, and during the fourth quarter of last year, we grew our loan portfolio by $100 million. The injection of capital allowed us to do that.”

Flynn says the agreement was good only for the 2008 bowl, but his company would like to stay as lead sponsor for this year’s game.

That won’t surprise Tom George, a former athletic director at American University who is now senior vice president for athlete and property marketing at Octagon, the sports marketing giant based in Tysons Corner.

George says that word on the street is that the EagleBank Bowl was a success for the sponsoring bank and event organizers.

“My feedback is that it was an extraordinarily successful event,” says George, a Wake Forest alum. “So it was delivering value to the bank. That’s what makes sports marketing hot, even in this [bad economy].”

George, of course, can’t be viewed as entirely objective when talking about the value of sports marketing: He is currently overseeing Octagon’s effort to sell the naming rights to New Orleans Arena, home of the New Orleans Hornets. Oh, and George’s client list at Octagon includes Michael Phelps.

So after last weekend, he can be excused for thinking that banks aren’t really in such a tight spot.