April 10, 2011
Just when you thought nothing would ever change at Augusta National – the gorgeous Georgia links that have been home for 75 years to the Masters, golf’s most storied of tournaments – change is in the springtime air. For the first time in nearly five decades, Augusta National has opened up a new revenue stream by selling daily passes to the public for the 2012 Masters’ practice rounds ($50 a ticket) and the tournament ($75 a ticket). Tickets are on sale at the Masters website until June 30 and are sold by random selection after receipt of an online application, according to the site. While nothing’s guaranteed, at least a deal is to be had – considering that on StubHub some folks are forking over $3,414 for a four-day tournament pass to the Masters and a chance to gawk at golf’s greatest players.
Yes, onlookers are still called patrons at the Masters and mobile devices are still banned during the tournament. But for all its tradition and beauty, the Masters is part of the big business of golf in Georgia. The state takes in roughly $5 billion from all amateur and pro activities. It makes sense, then, that the iconic blazer and those devilish putting surfaces are, in fact, green.
The tournament is a unique brand among blue-chip sporting events. Where other spectacles ensure that each moment is leveraged and monetized, the Masters has successfully taken the opposite approach. Nary a logo is to be seen on that famous scoreboard, and the Masters works with just a handful of big-ticket sponsors – IBM, AT&T and ExxonMobil are part of this year's event. Since Augusta National is a private golf club that takes its privacy very seriously, the dollar figures attached to those sponsorships – or partnerships, as IBM’s director of sports marketing Rick Singer prefers to call them – are a closely guarded secret.
Whatever they’re paying, the sponsors exert their marketing muscle by receiving advertising exclusivity and by funding the limited commercial interruptions that are a Masters hallmark. In the final eight hours of the 2009 Masters, for instance, only 36 minutes of commercials were aired. The PGA’s elite players do nicely at the Masters – 2010 champion Phil Mickelson won $1.35 million, while the total payout this year is $7.5 million – but their role as human billboards helps other advertisers get a little attention. There’s a reason, after all, that Tiger Woods wears the Nike swoosh, and sports business analyst Rick Horrow estimated that K.J. Choi, Tiger’s playing partner in last year’s Masters, provided about $15 million in TV advertising time to his five sponsors.
Golf is big business in Georgia. “We’ve stopped trying to figure out the overall impact [of the Masters] on Augusta,” says Peggy Seigler, vice president of sales and marketing at Augusta’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The way that retail relies on Christmas, a lot of our hotels and restaurants rely on The Masters.” For businesses in Augusta and surrounding communities, the Masters week functions as seven days of Black Fridays. “This one week of the year can equal a whole month of revenue for these businesses,” says Seigler.
For big-time corporate hosts, though, hotels are secondary to private homes, which can rent for tens of thousands of dollars for the week. (It helps that Augusta’s school system schedules its spring break for Masters week.) “The people who are renting their homes for the week could be paying their whole year’s mortgage,” says Brian Wilder of Premiere Sports Travel. “At the least, they’re subsidizing a great vacation.”
Companies such as Wilder’s spend Masters week planning and overseeing extravagant, intimate corporate events. “These are private houses, and people entertain as you would at home, which really sets it apart,” Wilder says. Which isn’t to say that the entertainment scene in Augusta is modest. “We’ve got a client taking eight private houses, hiring three private chefs, renting 10 to 12 vehicles, and getting anywhere from 25 to 50 badges per day,” Wilder says. “That’s going to cost upwards of $500,000. And there are people spending more than that.”
For IBM, which created the ultra-advanced website for this year’s tournament, the partnership offers more than just TV advertising time. IBM’s logo is prominent on the site and will be seen by plenty of eyeballs. Between 2009 and 2010, the website’s traffic increased to 8.35 million unique visitors and 135 million pageviews – a spike of 25 percent and 35 percent respectively.
But the partnership also allows IBM to show off its technology, including 3D video streams and a splashy new iPad app. “The Masters is so technologically advanced,” says IBM’s Rick Singer, “and there are so many things they’ve done first, but they’ve still kept their brand intact. Our job is to bring that to the patrons who can’t be there.”
Augusta National Golf Club spends a huge amount of money keeping its 365-acre course up to par. While precise amounts are hard to come by, the innovative SubAir vacuum system that wicks standing water off the famous greens costs somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000 per hole. A wealthy membership helps pay for the upkeep, and the annual Masters functions as one heck of a country club fundraiser. The club limits itself to about 300 members at any given time, and an annual membership – by invitation only, of course – is said to go for about $10,000.
The Masters describes itself as “a tradition like no other,” and the interlocking economies surrounding it and the iconic golf Eden at the center of it all turn that slogan into something like a bottom-line fact. And to think that Bobby Jones and his business partners bought the property that is now Augusta National for $15,000 in the early 1930s. Could the golf great have ever imagined the business it is today?