IBM and the Masters: A Technology Sponsorship Unlike Most Others

An "inside the ropes" look at IBM's sports partnership strategy, and the risk vs. reward game that the technology vendor takes on as Tiger Woods returns to golf and viewer interest hits an all-time-high in the storied tournament at Augusta National.

When viewers tune in to coverage of the 2010 Masters golf tournament, they will see IBM advertisements on the CBS and ESPN TV broadcasts and the IBM logo on the Masters.com website. Viewers will most likely hear about IBM's vision of a "smarter planet" campaign. (I always look forward to the guy who says "Smarter Stuttgart.")

Viewers don't have to fret about being overwhelmed with the volume of ads. This is the Masters, after all. The annual golf tournament prides itself on a "less is more" philosophy when it comes to advertisements. Commercial interruptions are the exception, not the norm: During eight hours of TV coverage on Saturday and Sunday of the 2009 Masters, Nielsen data showed just 36 minutes of commercials.

In fact, unlike most professional golf tournaments, the Masters has only three sponsors: IBM, AT&T and ExxonMobil. These three business giants pay for the exclusivity of the Masters' "limited commercial interruptions," though that price tag is a closely guarded secret.

Even so, the return of Tiger Woods back into the public eye and the professional golfing world will likely make this year's edition a marketer's dream: TV ratings are projected to be through the roof and fan interest in the event is, impossibly, at an even higher level than typical. According to one Bloomberg article, the trio of Masters sponsors could realize a 43 percent boost in the value of TV ads simply because of Woods' return.

IBM's sponsorship, however, is a little bit different than AT&T's or ExxonMobil's arrangements with the executives who operate the Augusta National Golf Club. Sure there are the TV spots that IBM buys, but viewers will also notice that the tournament is "powered" by IBM technology.

Tiger Woods Masters 2010 IBM
Tiger Woods makes his return

to professional golf at

the 2010 Masters Tournament.

No, IBM is not the state of Georgia's new utility provider. It means, according to Rick Singer, IBM's VP of client executive marketing, that IBM systems and staffers provide the IT backbone for Augusta National. "We provide virtually all of their technology needs from beginning to end," Singer says. That includes a wide range of tasks such as: core infrastructure and data center management; website design and interactive content development; networking and security; and golf scoring and player statistics, a.k.a. "data management."

Simply stated, Singer says, "We're helping them communicate with the world." And with Tiger Woods back roaming the fairways and greens of Augusta National, it will probably feel like most of the world will indeed be watching.

A Sponsorship Unlike Any Other

IBM's sponsorship-partnership arrangement with Augusta National is unique, especially when compared with your typical corporate sponsorship of golf events, tennis tournaments or other sports-related business schmoozefests. Those typically look like this: Show up on the day of event with clients, wine-and-dine, talk-a-little-business and offer up a reverential "golf clap" every so often.

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