Commentary: Masters Of Anti Sports Marketing

For golf fans, nothing signals the start of another season quite like The Masters. The tradition-rich tournament that runs Apr. 6-9 is a soothing wake-up call for duffers, beckoning them back for another year of lofty ambitions and erratic shot-making. Yet an accident of the calendar doesn't quite explain the grip this tournament has on golf.

The mystique of The Masters is probably best summed up by a simple principle: Less is more. The buttoned-down, tight-lipped members of the Augusta National Golf Club who run The Masters have proved themselves masters of managing supply.

If you have weeklong passes, you probably inherited them from your great-grandfather. The estimated 40,000 badges are the most sought-after in sports, and the waiting list closed two decades ago. Masters golf paraphernalia isn't much easier to come by. Shirts, visors, towels, and other items carrying the distinctive flagstick logo are sold only at souvenir pavilions and the pro shop--and only during tournament week.

UNIQUE. If The Masters peddled its wares on the Web or loosened curbs on corporate hospitality tents--only a few longtime sponsors have them--it might be one of the great cash cows in sports, alongside the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four. As it is, The Masters is no pauper. Although the club zealously guards its numbers, revenue estimates run from $20 million to $25 million.

Rest assured, however, that The Masters will continue leaving money on the table. Its almost cavalier attitude toward cash allows the all-male, overwhelmingly-white membership of Augusta National to retain steely control. The less these anti-sports-marketers trumpet their tournament, the larger its legend seems to grow. "The Masters is absolutely unique in all of sports. There's a real feeling that they want you to worship from afar. See it, experience it, but don't get too close," says sports-marketing consultant William A. Sutton.

That aura is as old as the tourney itself. Conceived by golfing legend Bobby Jones in 1934, The Masters began as an intimate get-together of Jones's friends on the picture-postcard course that weaves through groves of Georgia pines. And to this day, "The National" retains its exclusivity. Citigroup's Sandy Weill, GE's Jack Welch, Bank of America's Hugh McColl, and former Secretary of State George P. Shultz are or have been members. Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates would like to be one but hasn't gotten in.

"If you're launching a sporting event now, you're fighting every day for people's attention. First thing, you throw up a Web site. Then you try to get writers buzzing about it," says Sutton. "The Masters is just the opposite. It doesn't need to do any of that. It's positioned itself as this regal event."

Television helps with the tease. CBS has been the only network to televise The Masters since its TV debut 45 years ago. It has held on to this plum largely because it abides by a list of unusual terms dictated by the club: a limit of four minutes of commercial breaks per hour, a ban on annoying promos for regular network shows, and a sharp limit on air time.

Unlike NBC's coverage of the U.S. Open, which follows the leaders from the first tee, The Masters decrees that coverage begin mid-round, focusing the drama on the famous Amen Corner holes of the back nine. Given a chance, CBS undoubtedly would expand coverage to both nines and maybe the lot where the golfers park their courtesy cars. But Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson isn't budging. "We've talked about this very subject," says CBS Sports President Sean McManus. "If the club felt strongly we should do something to improve our coverage, we'd obviously have an open dialog."

In only one area has The Masters eased up on its less-is-more philosophy: prize money. Last year's champion, Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, banked $800,000, a hefty raise over the 1998 winner's check of $576,000. And let's not forget that the pros do get to spend a week playing "The National." The men in the green jackets no doubt think that's reward enough.

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