2005: Sponsors shrug off image risk, return to Masters Tournament

The Masters television sponsors are back, only this time there is a different lineup.

ExxonMobil and telecommunications giant SBC join holdover IBM for this year’s tournament. Gone are Coca-Cola and Citigroup, who were dropped as sponsors along with IBM before the 2003 tournament in an effort to shield them from activist Martha Burk’s campaign against the membership policies of Augusta National Golf Club.

Tournament officials did not explain why these three companies were picked among a host of corporate suitors, but sources close to the event say their international scope – which matches the Masters’ global appeal – and their record on women’s rights contributed to their selection.

The return of sponsors not only is a financial boon to organizers, but an indication that Augusta National believes the furor over its membership make-up is indeed over. The willingness of these corporations to come on board, as well as the interest of other Fortune 500 companies that coveted the sponsorship rights, demonstrate that the Masters still maintains enormous advertising and marketing cachet, far outweighing any political liability.

The most significant development is that the Masters no longer will be commercial-free, and organizers again will be able to tap precious advertising revenue. Augusta National will reap roughly $14 million from the three sponsors, according to a source close to the tournament.

Those monies will make it easier for Augusta National to finance projects it has planned for the first major of the year, such as building a new practice area for contestants and providing additional parking.

“What we are trying to do is preserve the Masters for generations to come,” says Hootie Johnson, the club and tournament chairman. “Having the sponsors back helps us in that regard, and I do not think four minutes an hour for commercials is an imposition on our viewers.”

As in the past, the sponsors will share the allotted commercial time during television coverage, which has been extended 90 minutes for 2005. In addition, they will have a presence in the annual Masters Journal magazine and the Masters highlight video, as well as receive exclusive hospitality opportunities.

The reemergence of sponsors, however, has prompted another rebuke from Burk and her group, the National Council of Women’s Organizations. She told Golfweek: “I think they are certainly doing the wrong thing by associating themselves with the tournament and the club.”

But even when Burk’s protest was at its loudest a couple of years ago, it did little to sway public opinion in her favor. A series of polls taken by news groups – including CBS.SportsLine.com, ESPN.com and CNNSI.com – during her initial campaign against Augusta’s membership policies showed that more than 75 percent of all respondents supported the club’s position.

Her campaign also has had little effect on the three sponsors, all of whom previously have been associated with the tournament and increased their role this year without hesitation.

IBM is the old kid on the block, having assisted in the scoring operation at the Masters for nearly two decades. In 1996, it began helping in the production and hosting of the tournament’s official Web site, www.masters.org, and served as a television sponsor in 2002, the last time corporations were permitted such a role at Augusta. As for ExxonMobil and SBC, they both were sponsors of the tournament’s international broadcast in 2004.

Their reasons for enhancing their association with the event are essentially the same.

“We view this tournament as the first among the majors in golf,” says Larry Solomon, a spokesman for San Antonio-based SBC, which started as Southwestern Bell, owns a majority share of the wireless company Cingular and is in the process of acquiring AT&T.

“They garner great ratings while giving us a strong platform to market and promote our brand,” he says.

Adds Ken Cohen, vice president of public affairs for ExxonMobil: “We are as global a company as can be, operating in more than 200 countries and territories. And with the Masters we have a truly global sports event that is seen by 150 million people in 190 countries. That’s pretty good reach.”

Neither SBC nor ExxonMobil expressed concern about issues arising from the lack of female members at Augusta National.

“We based our decision to do this on sound business and marketing rationale,” Solomon says. “We are sponsoring the Masters . . . and club policies are a matter for the club. This was a rare and unique opportunity for SBC, and anyone who knows our company knows we have a long and distinguished track record with women’s rights.”

An exemplary history in that area was one of several factors that contributed to the selection of this year’s sponsors, according to a tournament source.

“The club also likes international companies, like ExxonMobil and IBM,” the source says.

“That was one of the reasons why they severed the Cadillac relationship some years ago. It just wasn’t multinational enough to market the Masters brand around the world.”

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