It’s hard to refer to them as courageous since courage does not equate to doing the right thing. But with all the expressions of “finally!” Monday now that Augusta National has two female members, it bears remembering the worthy stances Coca-Cola and Citigroup took several years back and how others took advantage.
Under siege for its male-only membership policy, Augusta opted to air the Masters telecasts in 2003 and 2004 commercial-free. CBS and USA obliged. Augusta Chairman Hootie Johnson reportedly claimed he wanted to shield the advertisers – Coke, Citigroup and IBM – from enduring any fire by association with the golf club.
Augusta is famously restrictive with its advertising policies. CBS (which has carried the event for decades) and now ESPN are limited in the number of commercial minutes they can air and Augusta chooses the three sponsors. Each returns annually, unless Augusta gives one the boot.
A presence in the broadcasts is obviously a coup. The trio of advertisers stand out with the clutter-free environment; the ratings are high; and the audience is upscale.
Travelers Group had been a Masters telecast backer since the 1950s and Citigroup picked up the sponsorship when it subsumed the insurance company. Coke had only recently been let into the exclusive club in the early 2000s.
Both companies had it made. Each April as the Masters with azaleas and Amen Corner and green jackets came on, they had a prime opportunity to display new creative and link themselves with that wonderful whiff of spring.
In 2005, with the controversy over Augusta banning female members seemed to be cooling, the club moved to return to sponsored broadcasts. It seemed the three incumbent advertisers would be back.
But Coke and Citigroup had no interest in returning. Both opted to forgo association with Augusta and its discriminatory membership policy.
According to a Golf World report in 2004, an Augusta source told the magazine: “We have not spoken to them in two years. Neither side initiated talks. They’ve gone their way and we’ve gone ours.”
Citigroup’s then-CEO Sandy Weill issued a public protest in 2002, and a year later Coke reportedly didn’t go with its usual large guest presence at the Masters.
But Weill has reportedly remained an Augusta member. And, both companies seemed to just slink away without renewing their sponsorships, choosing not to make much of an issue out of it. It appeared to be a brand-protecting business decision.
But if neither company was exactly Susan B. Anthony, they have paid a price for their positions. IBM returned as an advertiser in 2005. And, ExxonMobil and AT&T (then SBC) couldn’t take over the open slots from Coke and Citigroup fast enough.
With the issue of female membership being wiped away, IBM, ExxonMobil and AT&T are poised to continue reaping the benefits of their involvement with Augusta -- with no image problems on the horizon. Is it a stretch to say they are being rewarded for sticking by an organization that engaged in troubling gender bias?
There is some irony in that IBM seemingly played a role in Augusta reversing its male-only policy. ESPN's Rick Reilly noted top executives at sponsor companies are frequently granted club membership. With IBM having a new female CEO (Virginia Rometty) and not making her a member, Reilly said Augusta leadership was beginning to appear “like hypocrites.”
It should also be noted that IBM, ExxonMobil and AT&T were not the only ones to profit from Augusta links while it was barring the door to women. CBS and USA continued to offer the Masters, as did ESPN.
The networks would argue they were televising a golf tournament and not supporting a membership policy. But they played defense, not offense.
Nonetheless, the fairways are all clear now for riding with Augusta. And it’s pretty safe to say the laudable positions Coke and Citigroup took had zero-to-little impact in altering Augusta’s history. That doesn’t seem right.