IBM's Ginny Rometty In Tougher Position Than Augusta National's Billy Payne

Virginia 'Ginni' Rometty
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Virginia 'Ginni' Rometty

On Wednesday, golf writers put the pressure on Augusta National chairman Billy Payne for the club's long-standing no women membership policy.

Payne refused to talk about it, shifting the focus back to the subject, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, who, with her company, has been mum on the idea that, as is tradition with sponsors, she get her Green Jacket as an Augusta National member.

The public means to put pressure on Payne, but Rometty is in a much tougher position. She has so much to lose.

When women's activist Martha Burk protested Augusta National's no women membership policy in 2003, she had nothing to lose. There weren't any real stakes because she inserted herself in a business that she wasn't previously a part of.

Burk pushed hard enough that the Masters hosts gave its three sponsors, including IBM, a year off so that they wouldn't be dragged into the controversy.

Augusta National can do that because it doesn't care to strain every dollar out of its extremely valuable product. They sell the TV rights but stipulate that ESPN and CBS that they only run a couple minutes of commercials, from their sponsors only, per hour. They only sell a small amount of badges (tickets) and have the lowest concession prices of any major sporting event. Not having many partners means that you do what you want and what is normally good business, to be inclusionary, goes out the window.

Just because Augusta National doesn't choose to max out revenue doesn't mean IBM thinks less of its deal. Being one of three sponsors at a major sporting event in the cluttered world we live in has great value. That makes this IBM's most valuable sports property.

Rometty's problem is that she can't say, "I don't golf, so I have no interest in being a member." That would be read as a refusal to fight for women. If Augusta National does quietly extend an invitation and Rometty doesn't acknowledge it, it seems like she is a member for the personal gain, but doesn't choose to acknowledge its historical significance. And, finally, if she doesn't get invited and wants to be a member, she is almost obligated, as the face of IBM, to pull out of the Masters sponsorship, a tough proposition given that dollar for dollar it's probably a good spend for the company and its shareholders.

Who knows how soon Rometty, when she took the job, realized the predicament she would be in. While the pressure has been on for the last week, this has been thought about on the IBM side for a while so it makes you wonder if their silence is a strategy or a statement.

Questions? Comments?