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.

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No doubt, as a sponsor, IBM entertains key customers and executives at the Masters. And IBM pays for that, though Singer won't disclose that amount. (For the record, IBM spent $1.2 billion in 2009 on advertising and promotional expenses, according to its annual report. That's for its entire marketing activities, a small portion of which is spent on sports sponsorships, according to an IBM PR representative.)

IBM Masters Website 2010
An image of the 2010 Masters.com website,

which is run by IBM.

But because IBM has its own software, hardware and people working on-site, in real time, while the world is watching the Masters, an IBM customer can get a little hospitality as well as a more engaging product demo than your garden-variety game of 40 PowerPoint slides in a conference room. In other words, the Masters is a living, breathing reference customer that IBM customers really, really want to hear about. "It's not a demo; it's real business," Singer says. "We see it not so much as hospitality—though that is part of it—but as truly an event. It's an IBM event because they're getting a taste of our technology. And it's wrapped in a very nice box."

IBM views an event like the Masters as well as the business strategies and IT infrastructure working behind the scenes as a way to tell a business story that customers want to hear, Singer says. "For us to talk about the business challenges that the Masters or USGA [U.S. Golf Association] faces or how we sat down with the NFL [National Football League] and figured out how technology can help them address their issues, it takes it out of the realm of discussing 'balls'—footballs, tennis balls and golf balls," he says. "It's more about challenges on managing data, challenges on managing infrastructure and reducing cost."

Making the Relationship Work

This is not a new type of marketing arrangement for IBM. Singer says IBM began this back with the 1960 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Today, technology partnerships include such deals with the USGA (pro golf's U.S. Open), the four major championships of professional tennis (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open) and the NFL. (CIO.com profiled the IBM team's efforts at the U.S. Open tennis championships and PGA Championship back in 2000.)

Why these events? Singer says IBM chooses these sports properties because of "the passion" the events evoke among IBM's customers and potential new clients. "It's what our customers care about," he says. "These are the things our clients will travel for, and they'll watch on TV." Plus, he adds, "It's fun to hear about a business story wrapped around something you're passionate about."

For decades, many in corporate America have claimed that the golf course is "where business gets done." But according to a 2008 CIO magazine survey of 394 IT industry professionals, not everyone is sold on golf's career-enhancing powers: 55 percent said that their interest in the game of golf had helped their careers; 45 percent said it had not helped them.

Nevertheless, there aren't too many golf fans (even casual ones) or IBM customers who would ever turn down a visit to the Masters tournament. Singer confirms that fact. The 2008 CIO survey found that Augusta National was the number-one golf "dream destination."

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