Leadership by Geoff Colvin

TV's best reality show? The Masters Tournament

April 1, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

What corporate leaders can learn from the golf tourney's air of superiority

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- The greatest reality show on TV begins next week.

I refer of course to the Masters Tournament, the advent of which renders some of us almost immobile with anticipation. The question is why. By common agreement there are four major golf tournaments. Why is the Masters so clearly preeminent? Why are its TV ratings always far higher than those of the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship? Why do golfers from around the world yearn to win it more than any other tournament?

Why is it that when Adam Scott last year became the first Aussie to win, Prime Minister Julia Gillard felt compelled to tell the nation, "By any measure this is a historic day for Australian sport"?

The answer is valuable to anyone in business -- every company wants to be as successful as the Masters. Yet by objective criteria, the tournament is a lot like the other majors; they all attract the very best players and are extremely well-managed. So what is the extra something, the source of the magic that makes players and fans and prime ministers swoon?

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As in so much of life, a lot of it is attitude: By behaving as if it's superior, it is perceived as superior, and absolutely no institution in sports behaves with the quiet self-confidence of the Masters. In its genteel, patrician way, it tells the world: You need us more than we need you. Specifically:

  • We don't need any particular TV network. The Masters has been televised on CBS since 1956, always on a one-year contract. The message to CBS is that if any aspect of its coverage displeases the powers of Augusta National, they'll just hand the contract to one of the other networks begging to have it.
  • We don't need TV sponsors. When an activist got national attention in 2003 and 2004 calling for boycotts of the Masters' TV sponsors (AT&T (T), ExxonMobil (XOM) , IBM (IBM)) because Augusta National then had no female members, the tournament simply eliminated all TV commercials from the coverage.
  • We don't need to market tickets. The last time an ordinary citizen could call the tournament office and buy a ticket was 1972. Existing badge-holders almost invariably keep their badges for their entire lives and then bequeath them to their heirs. In 2012 the Masters started offering a tiny number of single-day tickets (it won't say how many) through a lottery; your chances of getting one appear slightly better than your odds of filling out a perfect NCAA bracket.
  • We don't need to ask for volunteers. The Masters pays nothing to hundreds of staffers needed during tournament week, and people stand in line for the opportunity. At the tournament a few years ago I spoke to a man who had spent 11 years on the waiting list before getting his chance.
  • We don't need to attract players with the size of the prize money. The Masters pays very well -- Adam Scott got $1,440,000 last year -- but tournament officials don't confirm the prize amounts until after the tournament is over. They don't want to suggest that anyone is competing in the Masters for mere money.

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It's no surprise that the Masters is hugely successful or that it conveys utter self-assurance. Augusta National's members include many of the most formidable CEOs and former CEOs in America: Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Larry Bossidy, Ken Chenault, Lou Gerstner. In this, as in their more public roles, they know what they're doing.

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