The Masters: the Most Exclusive Sponsorship Club in Sports

(Jack Gruber/USA TODAY staff)
(Jack Gruber/USA TODAY staff)

With its base at a constant 300 members, Augusta National is widely considered the most exclusive golf club in the world. You can’t even ask to be a member of Augusta National– you must be nominated by a board after someone from the club quits or dies.

Keep this in mind Thursday when the 2014 Masters golf tournament begins, because the same ideal plays out when it comes to its sponsors and broadcasting partners.

For almost 60 years, the Master’s tournament has had successive one-year deals with CBS for the U.S. television broadcasting rights. By firsthand accounts, there is no written contract—just a handshake deal that gives CBS what it wants (broadcasting rights) and Augusta National what it wants (control over the tournament’s content).

Details of these one-year broadcasting deals are kept entirely private.

Room for Only Three Official Sponsors

One piece of control maintained by Augusta National is advertising time. CBS is allowed to air only four minutes of commercial per hour and cannot sell ads on the open market.

Instead, Augusta National gives this valued air time to the tournament’s three official sponsors: IBM, AT&T and Mercedes-Benz through secretly negotiated sponsorship deals.

Augusta National plays broker and likely dictates the prices paid by the tournament sponsors to cover the broadcasting costs, with CBS more than willing to oblige given the tournament’s prestige and high regard in the sports world.

All the handshake, backroom dealings may have sent some sponsors for the exits, such as previous sponsors Coca-Cola, Citigroup, and most recently ExxonMobil, which ended its relationship with the golf tournament this year.

Once out of the circle of three, a sponsor likely is never let back in.

Additional Quasi-Sponsors

In addition to the tournament’s three official sponsors, Augusta National also sells separate sponsorship packages to two international partners: Rolex and UPS.

Neither international partner is given commercial time on television.

Mercedes-Benz had previously been one of two international partners for the tournament before being elevated to official sponsor status, making it seem as if the international partner play is simply a means to gain access to the ultra-exclusive circle of three.

An on-deck circle of sorts.

The year-to-year, unwritten nature of the broadcasting deals would surely make any marketing manager at a large multinational such as Coca-Cola or Citigroup uncomfortable given the uncertainty, lack of control and the mystery around Augusta’s broadcasting relationships.

But just like becoming a member, a sponsor has to play by Augusta’s rules to become part of the club.

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