In sports business, we always eye the future. What new tech will get more fans through the turnstiles? What’s the next trend in mobile viewing? How can we use social media to better engage fans during broadcast? There’s nothing in our industry that isn’t ripe for change, except for one event — the Masters Tournament, which gets underway this week.
From a media standpoint, the tournament is an anomaly. Thanks to Augusta National’s affluent membership, the Masters doesn’t rely on TV rights fees for revenue. They can essentially dictate terms to CBS and limit commercial breaks to an almost negligible tally. The single-year (but annually signed) deals with the broadcaster are said to be completed with just a handshake.
And away from TV, it’s the hottest ticket in sports. For a certain class of influencer, value comes primarily from hard-to-attain experiences or world-class service. The Masters, more so than any other major sporting event, offers a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience — and provides the chance to build meaningful corporate relationships. And because everybody wants in, gaining admission is rarely as simple as purchasing a ticket.
This wasn’t always the case. Up until the late 1950s, Augusta National had to enlist the help of local leaders to unload tickets in the quaint town of 60,000. Bankers shouldered much of the selling — sometimes even pressuring customers into buying tickets in “quid pro quo” deals for banking services. But then a young golfer named Arnold Palmer burst onto the scene at Augusta, and the rest is history. By 1972, the list for public badges was closed off, and the now-mammoth waiting list was established.
Today, there’s no box office at Augusta National. To get through the gates, you will need a near-unobtainable badge — often passed down like an heirloom, or distributed to members via lottery. The secondary market is limited to licensed brokers, who pay a fee of $500 per year, and register with the city of Augusta for the right to participate. Selling unlicensed badges gets you banned for life, so this is the only option for most folks.
With badges in hand, the lucky few attendees will arrive in Augusta, ready for four days of world-class golf, but not expecting a world-class hotel — because Augusta lacks one. Instead, for months in advance, brands (and some affluent fans) book private residences surrounding the course. Pick a blue-chip brand in the sports world, and it’s likely that its marketing bigwigs have, at one time or another, slept in a rec room or on a bunk bed, just to be a part of the event. That’s half of the fun.
The other half of the fun is creating and maintaining corporate relationships, which has always been a cornerstone of success in business. And that’s why customized corporate hospitality as a service offering at sporting events has been a steady riser for decades. Corporate hospitality strives to go anywhere that fans typically can’t go, and perhaps nowhere in America is it more alive than at The Masters — where every moment can feel like a privilege.
Corporate hospitality is also really the only way that brands can get visibility past the gates, because on the course, the traditional sports business machinations are nearly impossible to spot. Sure, the players have their usual sponsored equipment. But, the course is unblemished by signage, there are no branded-VIP lounges or step-and-repeat photo opportunities. Rejecting sky-high concession prices typical at other sporting events, the venue offers a beer for $3 and a sandwich for even less. There is a mutual respect here between Augusta National and its patrons, which is passed to the golfers themselves — even with all those value-priced beers, there’s hardly ever any unruly behavior. Each detail of the weekend is executed with understated elegance, each blade of grass manicured.
That’s why participation — whether “insider” or otherwise — at The Masters isn’t about the usual slew of business metrics associated with involvement in sports. Here, the ROI comes with personal association, with access, with sharing a “can’t-buy” experience. Each spring, thousands of lucky fans and business influencers will flock to Augusta to share in something valuable at the Mecca of corporate relationship building — the original, and the last place in sports where it’s still more about sports traditions than it is about business traditions.
For four days, it isn’t about the technology. It isn’t about the trends. It isn’t about what’s next. Instead, it’s about what’s always been. It’s about tradition. It’s about relationships, old and new.
It’s about the Masters.