The Masters – a sponsor’s Elysium

The Masters, the first golf major of the season, is the most celebrated and aesthetically pleasing tournament on the PGA tour but behind the beauty is a unique sponsorship model.

The Masters – a sponsor’s Elysium

The most coveted garment in golf is not a pair of Ian Poulter’s flamboyant trousers. It is, in fact, the iconic green jacket worn by the eventual winner of the first major of the season - The Masters, played at Augusta National Golf Club, Georgia, USA. 

Like Wimbledon is in tennis, the Masters is arguably the most hallowed title in golf. It is not unusual to think that the exquisitely manicured greens, verdant fairways, and flowerbeds of pink azaleas are as close as a golf course can get to heaven. 

The Masters, unlike the three other annual major tournaments – the Open, the USPGA, and the US Open – remains at the same venue. The dependability of the location has enabled the tournament to put in place an unorthodox sponsorship model and a bespoke way of funding itself. The organisers at the Augusta National are able to behave more or less how they want, in the knowledge that golf, advertisers, and patrons will return the next year. 

The Augusta National, a private members’ club, eschews on-course advertising and thereby helped create beautiful, clean backdrops – as rare as hen’s teeth at commercially led contemporary courses around the world of professional golf. Unique in the modern sporting landscape, dictated by the members, Augusta only permits three exclusive sponsorship packages to three companies and limits commercial interruption in broadcasts to four minutes per hour, in contrast to the usual 12 or more.

The Masters’ prize money now sits alongside the PGA Championship and the Players Championship as one of the highest purses in golf at US$10 million. The 2016 winner will take home US$1.8 million and second place is worth US$1.1 million. 

The reserved old-school membership, who only admitted women in August 2012, like to keep every facet of the course completely time-honoured. The traditional aspects of the course are part of the rare charm and add to its popularity on and off the course - the caddies wear white jumpsuits, the defending champion selects the menu for the players’ supper, and all the holes are named after local flowers and trees.

The archaic attitudes to advertising are never plainer than at every tee-shot – instead of the usual advertising hoardings, there are rows of men in bottle green jackets.   

Though the Augusta National is notoriously coy when it comes to releasing its financial reports, IEG has calculated that the total annual sponsorship to be near US$18 million in previous years. That is derived from Mercedes-Benz, AT&T and IBM.

According to Forbes and Golf Digest, last year’s tournament is believed to have garnered some US$115 million in revenue, with the organisers turning a profit of almost US$30 million. US$47.5 million of that income came from booming sales of branded merchandise, US$34.75 million from ticket sales, US$7.75 million from concessions and US$25 million from international TV rights. 

In a 2015 report in Golf Digest it was noted that ‘this is the 60th consecutive year CBS has broadcast the Masters on a one-year contract […] neither CBS nor Augusta National makes money on the deal’. Which is remarkable, considering that Fox Sports agreed to pay around US$100 million a year for rights to the US Open in 2013 and NBC committed to US$50 million a year on rights to the Open, which takes place in Britain, in June last year. 

CBS produces the Masters broadcast, under strict guidelines laid down by the organisers. It has been said that there is no written contract and that deals are agreed based on a handshake with a number of enforced guidelines. The terms of this gentleman’s agreement are not public, which no doubt enhances the mystic lure and attraction associated with the opening major of the season. Fees from the sponsors are essentially diverted to CBS to cover its production costs in the aftermath of each tournament. It’s a unique arrangement and one that is still shrouded in a degree of mystery across the sports media landscape.

The advertising, in fitting with the prestigious nature of the course, needs to be more surreptitious and all three sponsors have been forced to act smart to break through. 

IBM is responsible for the development and maintenance of the tournament’s official website, Android app, iPhone app and iPad app. These include a live scoreboard and a dedicated app to the infamous Amen Corner: the nickname given to the difficult 11th (White Dogwood), 12th (Golden Bell), and 13th (Azalea) water holes.   

IBM places a small brand logo at the top right-hand corner of each digital display but the design is not intended to overwhelm viewers with brand promotion. It also runs the ‘Made With IBM’ campaign, which is a host of mini-stories that demonstrate the company's relationship with different clients and ambassadors.

Mercedes-Benz has a plethora of golf ambassadors who, despite an embargo by members on commentators mentioning brands, often get plenty of airtime – such as 2013 winner Adam Scott. 

The Masters is golf’s most-watched event. Compared to the other three majors, it’s in a league of its own and, spurred by the winning run of the American Jordan Spieth, last year’s final round generated an average viewership of 14 million across the US.

The Augusta National likes to keep its membership to an elite list of around 300, and with the likes of Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Roger Goodell confirmed within its ranks, it’s safe to assume that a high proportion are millionaires. But their ‘less is more’ attitude is preserving the tournament at the head of golf’s top table.