SBJ/May 1-7, 2017/Colleges

Sponsor, IMG play behind-the-scenes role in Nebraska homecoming

First National Bank identified the University of Nebraska’s spring football game as fertile marketing ground a decade ago. With close to 70,000 fans filling Memorial Stadium, many of whom can’t get tickets to sold-out games in the regular season, the spring game each April offers a unique activation for the Omaha-based bank.

But Brenda Hermanek, the bank’s longtime director of corporate sponsorships, never envisioned a scene like the one at the Cornhuskers’ game last month, when Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Hawke came home from Kuwait to surprise his family at midfield. “We’ve done military salutes before, but never anything like this,” said Hermanek, who started as an entry-level bank teller 19 years ago and now oversees sponsor relationships with eight Division I schools in the Midwest.

Staff Sgt. Matthew Hawke surprises his family during Nebraska’s spring game.
Photo by: IMG COLLEGE


As part of a new six-year deal to be the official bank of Husker Nation, First National Bank agreed to be the presenting sponsor of Nebraska’s spring game each year. In addition to the large crowds, Hermanek was drawn to the flexibility that comes with the spring game, which essentially is a scrimmage. First National, the largest privately owned bank in the nation, has sponsored autograph-signing zones with players in the past, something that wouldn’t be possible during the regular season.

For last month’s spring game, the bank’s first as a presenting sponsor, First National began working with IMG College, which manages the Nebraska property, to chart a new course for its in-venue activation. The idea, hatched three months before the April game, started modestly, with the bank offering 3,000 free tickets to military personnel.

Brian George, general manager of IMG College’s Nebraska property, said the plan blossomed from humble beginnings into the surprise family reunion at midfield, with Hawke dressed in a full football uniform. Video from the surprise reunion found its way to ESPN, Big Ten Network and most of the network morning shows.

“To see something like that come to fruition, and mean so much to so many people, it’s one of the most rewarding things about this job,” said George, who added that it was the first time his team had attempted a military homecoming.

George credited his IMG College cohort, Erika Grimm, who used to be in the Army and still is in the National Guard, for making “around a hundred phone calls” as she worked with military officials on logistics to get Hawke to Lincoln. Grimm worked with the Army to coordinate six flights and 27 hours of travel for Hawke, who was routed through Fort Hood, Texas, and still wasn’t sure that he’d make it in time.

Michael Zoerb, who works in IMG College’s partner services in Lincoln, collaborated with the bank. They were contemplating contingencies up until two days before the spring game as Hawke’s travel plans shifted.
Several IMG College properties at other schools have subsequently reached out to George’s team, especially Grimm, to find out how they pulled this off.

“We wanted to put a Nebraska spin on the homecoming,” George said. “So, as we worked closely with the athletic department, putting him in a full Nebraska uniform and doing the tunnel walk with the team, it just became a little more unique.”

The next challenge for First National is determining what to do with all of the content and behind-the-scenes footage from the midfield family reunion. Highlights are likely to find their way onto Nebraska’s video boards next season and the bank is figuring out if it can run clips on its in-house video network that serves branches in Nebraska.

“With it being such an uplifting story on Easter weekend, it just got incredible pickup,” Hermanek said. “It was our way of saying thank you to the military, but we had no idea it would get so big.”

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