USA Caught In Masters Rough

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USA Network remains committed to its early-round coverage of The Masters golf tournament next April — coverage that will now run commercial-free for the first time in the wake of the escalating controversy involving the event's organizing body, the Augusta National Golf Club.

Nevertheless, USA faces a challenge to its presentation of The Masters — the sport's first major event and the jewel of the network's golf schedule — from the National Council of Women's Organizations, a coalition of 160 groups representing more than 7 million women nationwide. NCWO is pressuring Augusta National, private since its formation in 1932, to admit its first woman member by the 2003 Masters.

Augusta National, led by chairman William Johnson, has so far rebuffed the council's appeal. Late last month, it took the unprecedented step of severing its media relationships with Citigroup, IBM Corp. and The Coca-Cola Co., the advertisers for USA's first and second-round Masters coverage, as well as CBS's weekend schedule.

"We are sorry, but not surprised, to see these corporations drawn into this matter, but continue to insist that our private club should not be 'managed' by an outside group," Johnson said in a statement. "It is therefore unfair to put The Masters' media sponsors in the position of having to deal with this pressure."

Club representatives offered no additional comment on the situation last week.

For now, USA — which inked its 2003 cable rights pact with The Masters prior to the ad-free decision — is maintaining a status quo posture, citing "its commitment to viewers" in a published report and offering such minimal comments as, "We plan on televising the Masters in 2003."

Separately, CBS has affirmed its Masters coverage plans, although it has not yet finalized a 2003 TV rights deal with Augusta National, which has long marched to its own drummer, insisting on one-year rights agreements with limited national ad time and no local spot time or station breaks.

In the past, both USA and CBS have run four minutes of national ads per hour.

TURNING UP THE HEAT

NCWO chairman Martha Burk told Multichannel News
she will contact USA in the next few weeks, urging the network to drop its coverage plans unless Augusta National names a female member.

She believes the golf club let its media sponsors go because Coca-Cola — as well as General Motors Corp.'s Cadillac division, the tournament's official car provider and, until last year, a perennial TV sponsor — were talking to club representatives about the situation, demanding a shift in course.

"I believe more than one of the sponsors [based on letters and calls] said that they could no longer sponsor activity at a club that discriminates," she said. "This action was taken in order to save face from having the sponsors announce that they were pulling out."

The read from Adam Barr, business and legal analyst on Golf Central, The Golf Channel's nightly news program, is that Augusta National took a pre-emptive strike, but on different grounds.

"My understanding of the situation is that all of the sponsors expressed a willingness to stick with it, and Augusta National said thanks, but no thanks," he said. "The club knew Burk would be pressuring sponsors, so they did it to preserve longtime sponsor relationships."

Still, Barr believes USA at some point will have to step beyond its one-sentence commentary and advocate its position on The Masters broadly.

"If [Burk] and her organization are more public, as I expect her to be, they will have to take a side," he said.

Added Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who now runs TV sports consultancy Pilson Communications: "I hope USA covers the tournament. The TV exposure of the tournament makes it a force for change. But I don't think TV should be used as a wedge for change."

For Pilson and other observers, Augusta National's decision to send sponsors on their way, possibly without their input, is also unprecedented. "I'm not aware of a similar situation involving any other sports event," Pilson said.

Sans sponsor support, Augusta National may have to spend as much as $7 million to run The Masters in 2003, including $5.5 million in prize money, according to various published reports. Combined USA and CBS production costs may run from roughly $1.5 million to $2 million.

The club is expected to cover expenses through gate receipts and various merchandising avenues.

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