Commentary > SportsBiz
Burk not Masters' only headache
Poor business climate works hand-in-hand with protesters to hit corporate travel to Augusta.
April 4, 2003: 3:54 PM EST
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Senior Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Martha Burk will get most of the attention this month when she brings her protests to Augusta, Ga., but she doesn't deserve all the credit -- or blame -- for the drop in corporate attendance that will be seen at the Masters golf tournament.

The tournament, which has always been one of corporate America's premier events to wine and dine clients, this year has become the focus of protest and debate over Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to have female members.

There will be fewer corporate execs and customers in the crowd at the Masters this year. Photo by Jonathan Ernst.  
There will be fewer corporate execs and customers in the crowd at the Masters this year. Photo by Jonathan Ernst.

Burk, the chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, has waged a public relations campaign to try to pressure the club to admit women as members. But the pressure only seems to have made Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson more opposed to admitting women.

Many of the folks involved in the wining and dining of corporate honchos and their clients say they see somewhere between a modest to a steep drop in those visits to this year's tournament. Patrick Aimee, a partner at Creative Image Group, which organizes corporate junkets to sporting events, said only three of his 15 clients from last year are back this year.

"We had a lot of big companies who don't want to be involved in the whole issue," he said. "They don't want clients in the middle of protests. They hope to go again next year."

Martha Burk  
Martha Burk

One of those clients is Dennis Santopietro, a San Diego IT executive who took 12 of his salesmen and customers to the Masters last year. This year they're going to the U.S. Open instead.

"This year with the cloud of it all, it's best to step away from it all," he said. "The U.S. Open is a good fill-in until things get sorted out."

Aimee replaced many of the clients he lost for this year's Masters with new customers, often from smaller companies. But he had to cut his prices dramatically to attract these new clients.

"Our premier package -- 10 people, four days, including all hospitality - that cost $96,000 for four days last year," he said. "Right now we're selling the same packages for $56,000."

Burk says that pressuring the corporations whose top executives are members of the club will be the focus of her group's future efforts.

"Our next step is we'll try stockholder resolutions and other ways to bring much greater scrutiny to these companies," Burk told me. "These are the people who have to be held accountable."

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While her group is not focused on the many companies without memberships for their executives that just entertain at the tournament, she believes she deserves full credit for any drop-off in entertaining this year.

"I think the economy only affects this kind of entertainment at the margins," she said. "For them to stay away altogether, I think it's us."

But Aimee and some of the others involved in the corporate hospitality side of the tournament, say it's not just Burk keeping corporations away. It's also a general downturn in the economy, restrictions on corporate travel during the war in Iraq and a variety of issues dogging corporate America.

"It was more business conditions in our case," said one drug industry executive, a regular at past Masters, who is missing this year's tournament. "Burk might get the credit for it, but if the climate was better, we'd be there with the normal contingent."

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Others involved in Augusta's corporate hospitality business point out that last year also saw a sharp drop in business from the year before, even though there were no protests about women membership at that time.

"Last year was actually a worse drop off than this year," said Terry Wick, owner of Events & More, an Augusta catering and event planning company that does about 40 percent of its business for the year during the Masters. "We had clients that lost people on Sept. 11 who said their company felt like they shouldn't be entertaining."

He says that he expects business will be off another 15 to 20 percent this year, costing him a couple hundred thousand dollars.

"This year maybe 10 or 15 percent who aren't coming are concerned about Martha Burk," he said. "Others aren't coming because of economy, or because their European guests are not flying across the Atlantic during the war. We had one client back out because of SEC problems."  Top of page

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