Skip to comments.Sorenstam's Placement May Hinge More on Marketing Than Talent
Posted on 05/26/2003 7:50:27 AM PDT by spald
Sorenstam's Placement May Hinge
More on Marketing Than Talent
It would be nice to believe that Annika Sorenstam's historic placement in this week's Bank of America Colonial was just an inevitable sign of the growth and progress of women's professional golf. But behind the scenes, there may be something a lot less righteous going on.
While the case is somewhat circumstantial, consider these facts: Annika Sorenstam earned a spot in this PGA Tour event because Colonial officials gave her one of a handful of special "exemptions" allowed under Tour rules. But before making her an offer, Colonial officials did the customary and prudent thing -- they consulted their new title sponsor, Bank of America, which is pumping $6 million into the event this year and paying most of the bills. When bank executives expressed enthusiasm, Colonial officials say, Annika got the nod.
It sounds innocent enough. Besides, there's no reason a nationwide retail bank with millions of female customers would turn away such a guaranteed marketing bonanza. But here's something Bank of America isn't advertising: the surprising number of current and former executives and directors who are members of a club famous for excluding women, Augusta National.
More Than One Green Jacket
Some of the ties have gotten ink. The most publicized: Augusta Chairman Hootie Johnson, the former chairman of the executive committee of Bank of America's board. Former chairman Hugh McColl is also an influential member. But the connection is not limited to retirees. Two of the bank's sitting directors wear the club's green jacket, as does chief financial officer James Hance. The latest inductee: chairman and chief executive Ken Lewis.
A spokesman for Bank of America declined to make executives available for comment or to discuss their role in the matter. He did say "the company has no connection to Augusta National." A representative for Augusta also declined to discuss Ms. Sorenstam , noting only that any woman who qualifies for the Masters would be welcome to play there. (A win this weekend wouldn't automatically qualify her.) And for his part, Dee Finley, chairman of the Colonial tournament, says Bank of America didn't apply any undue pressure on him to land her. "The decision was ours," he says. "They made it very clear."
Still, the details are intriguing. Back in late January, in the midst of the controversy regarding the Masters, Ms. Sorenstam told reporters she might like to compete with the men. Within days, a pair of relatively minor PGA Tour events made public overtures to her and, according to Sorenstam's agent, Mark Steinberg of International Management Group, several more made offers privately. Not among them: the Colonial.
In the end, however, the Colonial was the only tournament that met both of Ms. Sorenstam's conditions -- a weekend that fit her calendar and a course that best fit her game. So early in February, Mr. Steinberg placed two calls, one to the tournament office in Fort Worth and the other to sports-marketing executives at Bank of America.
Among the major pro sports, golf stands alone these days in the commitment it requires from title sponsors, who are expected to invest $6 million to $8 million in tournaments for some relatively marginal television exposure and a chance to entertain top clients in a rambling hospitality tent. In this economic climate, sponsors of this magnitude are tougher to find.
It's a lesson the Colonial learned first-hand last year when MasterCard decided not to renew its sponsorship with the tournament. Not only had Tiger Woods been skipping the event, but the purse had started to fall behind some Tour stops with far less glamorous pedigrees. Landing Bank of America was not just a coup for the Colonial; it helped the tournament boost the purse 16% this year to $5 million. "You try to do whatever pleases your title sponsor," says Mr. Finley, the tournament's chairman.
An Opportune Time
By any measure, Ms. Sorenstam came along at an opportune time for Bank of America. When the call came in from her agent, the Masters was still two months away and the idea of protests spreading from the club to the companies of its members seemed plausible. In October, Martha Burk of the National Council of Women's Organizations wrote a letter to Mr. Hance, the bank's CFO, asking him to justify his membership at Augusta National.
With the pressure on, as it surely was, Ms. Sorenstam must have looked like a pretty attractive lifeboat. For starters, her comments about the Augusta controversy had been mild to the point of docile. While she told reporters she would love to see a female invited to join, she added the caveat that Augusta National "has its own rules." In addition, club officials had played up the fact that Ms. Sorenstam actually played the course as a guest last year.
No matter what went on behind the scenes at its Charlotte, N.C., headquarters, it's only fair to give Bank of America a share of the credit for putting Ms. Sorenstam on the stage and allowing her to put on one of golf's most memorable performances (she finished one stroke over par in Thursday's first round).
Still, it's probably just as fair to hear from Ms. Burk, the woman who started all this drama in the first place by triggering a fight with Hootie Johnson last summer. "They are willing to profit from women's work, but they're not willing to treat them as equal participants in society," she says of the Bank of America executives who belong to Augusta. "That's what I call hypocrisy."
Write to Sam Walker at email@example.com
Updated May 23, 2003
George Will expressed an excellent idea on Sunday: The Colonial can attenuate Ms Sorenstam's thunder by inviting the leading woman golfer every year.
I don't know what alternate universe you live in, but in ours Annika dominates the women as convincingly as Tiger does the men.