Three corporate sponsors have signed up to advertise on the CBS telecast of the 2005 Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in April, ending two years of commercial-free golf for viewers during the first major championship of the year.
In the wake of protests spearheaded by the National Council of Women's Organizations directed toward the club's all-male membership policy, Augusta National Chairman William "Hootie" Johnson released three sponsors -- IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup -- from their contractual obligations for the 2003 and 2004 tournaments. Johnson said at the time he did not want the companies to have to deal with the controversy, and the club and the network absorbed the losses in ad revenue.
In a news release yesterday, the club announced that IBM was back in the fold, joined by ExxonMobil and SBC Communications, a major telecommunications firm. Both new sponsors are companies run by Augusta National members -- Lee Raymond of ExxonMobil and Edward E. Whitacre Jr. of SBC. It could not immediately be determined if IBM chairman Sam Palmisano is also a member.
Johnson declined through a spokesman to comment.
Martha Burk, chairwoman of the NCWO, said yesterday she was "appalled" by the three companies' decision to sponsor the telecast.
"It's another shot at women from three very prominent companies," Burk said in a telephone interview. "In this day and age when they claim to value diversity and their female employees, it's amazing that these companies would do this. These people are putting their personal interests above the interests of their stockholders and their employees. They've also set themselves up as pretty fat targets."
Burk's organization has retained the services of Washington lawyer Cyrus Mehri to look into possible discrimination toward women in companies with corporate executives who are members of Augusta National, with the possibility of litigation against those companies.
Loren Kerr, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, said the company was sponsoring the tournament because "it's one of the greatest sporting events in the world, broadcast to 150 million people in 190 countries. Associating ourselves with that makes sense. We're sponsoring a tournament, we're not commenting on Augusta National's membership policies. Our record speaks for itself on diversity in the workplace."
IBM spokesman Brian Doyle read a brief statement saying "the Masters is one of the world's most prestigious golf events and it's an effective marketing vehicle. We look forward to continuing our long relationship with the tournament."
Asked about the club's membership policies, Doyle declined to comment.
According to Augusta National's statement, an additional 90 minutes of the 2005 tournament will be aired by USA Network and CBS. USA, which carries the Thursday and Friday coverage, will add an extra 30 minutes to each of its telecasts, staying on the air from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. CBS will add an extra 30 minutes to its Saturday telecast of the third round, from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday's telecast will remain from 2:30 to 7 p.m.
The tournament had always been known for having the fewest commercials of any network sports event. The return of the sponsors will add four minutes of advertising per hour to the telecast.