Masters Leaving Money on the Table

CNBC’s Darren Rovell wrote in his blog last week how the Masters is probably the most valued sports entity that tries not to make money (http://www.cnbc.com/id/24065180), citing the lack of sponsorships, reduced ticket sales, and limited merchandise. Going a step further, Augusta is missing unmatched opportunities to capitalize in digital media, both financially and expanding its fan base.

To call Augusta National conservative is a monumental understatement. The club feels it has a responsibility to uphold old-school tradition, avoiding commercialization at any cost. It took years for it to allow CBS to provide full final round coverage, or allow sponsors on premise. This year they took the plunge, partnering with ESPN for early round coverage. However, television alone no longer cuts it, evidenced by decreased ratings almost across the board in network televised sports.

The Masters did increase its live online video this year, providing live video of the Amen corner holes, complete coverage of holes 15 and 16, and one hour of complete coverage each day leading into the television broadcasts, on Masters.org and CBSSports.com. Supplementing the live video feeds with blogs, interviews, interactive games, and a mobile component, Masters.org registered 5.4 million unique visitors through the week who requested a total of 6.7 million video streams, 16% and 59% increases over last year respectively.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Golf in general, particularly the Masters franchise, holds a unique position to capitalize on digital media by supplementing, rather than duplicating, television coverage. In an era where networks take wide criticism for following Tiger Woods’ every move, ignoring the rest of the field, the Masters and CBS has an opportunity to lure more golf fans by expanding live online coverage to every hole. No longer held hostage by TV decisions, viewers can create their own experience, as if they were at the tournament, watching a particular hole all day, or following a particular group.

Imagine a complete interactive experience, where a viewer watching the famous 13th hole can pull up video of past champions playing the hole, or memorable shots at the 13th hole. A devoted Freddy Couples fan has a chance to relive his performance on a given hole, then watch him play the hole live.

Take it to the next step, put a blogger on every hole for the entire tournament, or following select groups, chronicling the day as it unfolds. Connect the bloggers with fans through a social networking component. Provide a message board, let fans play a game where they guess what club a player will use, incorporate them into the event.

Though some may seem far-fetched, the opportunities are endless. If Augusta wants to continue leaving money on the table to keep the franchise non-commercial, so be it, they need to leverage this opportunity for the good of the sport. Expanding digital coverage opens the door to the younger audience, and more international exposure, two important demographics for golf, both of which the Masters inherently ignores with his old-fashioned mentality. A fan in Korea is more like to watch if they can follow K.J. Choi’s every move, from first tee right through signing his scorecard. Younger fans will flock to the interactivity, and the ability to customize the viewing will keep them tuned in, as opposed to the occasionally slow, somewhat boring TV coverage, sprinkled with feature stories that may not appeal to the entire audience.

New media allows for deeper penetration with the group I call “die-hards”, the fans already tuning in or attending the event. Golf is the rare sports event where a fan attending will see an insignificant portion of the total action because everyone plays simultaneously. Using mobile video to distribute the live streams enables these fans to follow the action around the course using their handheld devices. This year Masters.org used mobile alerts to send tee-times, pairings, scoring updates, and tournament info. Organizers can increase online and mobile video by alerting fans when a leader is putting for birdie, or if someone just hit a hole in one. Fans may want to receive a text message each time Phil Mickelson is putting, or whenever Vijay Singh tees off. Overall, it creates a more engaging experience for fans in attendance, or just not at home watching.

Money is there to be made with ad dollars online growing each day, if the Masters feels capitalizing on new media would denigrate its franchise, that’s its choice, other golf events and media outlets owning golf rights have these same opportunities. At a cross-roads where TV ratings hinge on whether Tiger plays or not, with a slight decrease in popularity and play since peaking earlier this decade, golf has a unique opportunity to leverage new media to build interest across the globe. They must take advantage before other sports reel everyone in. Hopefully they are not too rooted in tradition to see this.

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