Augusta National is in a battle vs. capitalism over Masters tickets

Dan WetzelColumnist

AUGUSTA, Ga. — StubHub, the online ticket exchange company, has rented a couple houses on Wicklow Dr. here, not far from where Raes Creek comes bubbling out of Augusta National Golf Club. It’s a convenient spot for the steady stream of customers who pull up and get their daily badges for the Masters, tickets that some spent over $3,000 to acquire for a one-day pass.

StubHub used to set up shop for Masters week in a nearby strip mall, but Augusta National bought that property, and if there is one thing the club has made clear is that it is no fan of the robust secondary ticket market, even if it struggles to figure out what to do about it.

It is an ironic fight. This is an exclusive and elite country club, after all, whose membership consists of some of the wealthiest people in the country, the beneficiaries of American capitalism. Yet it is vehemently opposed to laws of supply and demand that spike the prices for the tickets to its signature event.

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“Secondary markets are an issue in every sporting event and we are no exception,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday. “There’s sort of an element that comes with that, that it just doesn’t seem very healthy, and so when we are aware of it, when we know about it, we take action.”

Masters tickets are some of the most inexpensive in all of sports — $115 for a day pass during competition and just $75 for the Monday-Wednesday practice rounds. Augusta National could jack up the ticket prices, but cheap is how the club wants it — parking is also free and concessions stands feature items such as $1.50 egg salad sandwiches and $4 domestic beers.

Masters tickets are advertised to buy, sell and trade on Washington Road near Augusta National Golf Club. (AFP)
Masters tickets are advertised to buy, sell and trade on Washington Road near Augusta National Golf Club. (AFP)

“As you know, our credentials are very reasonably priced,” Ridley said.

While Augusta National does not provide many specifics, a large number of the tickets are doled out via a public lottery. Many are used by grateful golf fans. Many others find their way into the systems of StubHub, SeatGeek or even mom-and-pop ticket brokers who line Washington Road, much to the chagrin of Augusta National.

Augusta National’s opposition is that it would like all of its tickets to be used by lottery winners, many of whom can’t afford to pay two or three thousand dollars for one day of watching golf. The club wants the tournament to be accessible. When those tickets are instead won by someone willing to resell it, then there is less of that.

“I mean, the Masters ticket is a very, very valuable commodity in sports,” Ridley said. “We know there’s going to be a lot of that. We’d like to think that most of our patrons respect our ticket policy, but we know that some don’t.”

Augusta National makes that policy clear. The webpage for the online lottery specifically reads: “Do not apply for tickets on behalf of a friend or relative, as a gift, or to sell. By completing the application you certify these tickets are for your personal use. Duplicate applications or applications which are subsequently determined to have false or misleading information will not be given consideration or may have any offer of tickets withdrawn.”

Based on the number of tickets on the secondary market, that isn’t being universally followed.

“We do try to be diligent in enforcing our ticket policy,” Ridley said.

It is commendable for Augusta National to keep prices reasonable and, via the lottery, get tickets to people who lack connections to the club or even region.

On Tuesday, Luke and Julie Cousineau spoke of celebrating when they won two tickets to a practice round through the lottery and immediately started planning the trip from their home in Ottawa, Ontario. “The bucket list,” Julie said. Nearby the Wunder family from outside Baltimore shared a similar tale, finally winning four tickets after 15 years of applying.

However, the secondary market is also about accessibility. Some don’t want to wait to win a lottery to come here. Some can’t. Trips to the Masters are often described in religious terms, and it is extremely common to see intergenerational groups, particularly sons and daughters bringing aging parents who taught them to love this event.

Yes it costs. It costs a lot. However, the way technology has made the secondary market simple and efficient has also opened up a wider path for those who are willing to pay for an experience that is often hailed as “priceless.”

This is no longer about handing over a ton of cash to a guy in a gas station parking lot and hoping the badge you receive in exchange is authentic. StubHub’s deals are done via credit card over the internet and their pleasant, suburban pick-up spot includes free water, sunscreen and a sheriff’s detail to handle traffic.

Besides, it’s their money. They get to spend it how they want.

Augusta National will continue to fight this and it’s possible that technology could one day make snuffing it out easier by tying a specific badge to its original purchaser.

In the meantime, though, the free market is at work, on Wicklow Road, on cellphone apps and everywhere else around here. Some people got in Thursday for $115. Some paid 25 times that.

They all looked happy because in the end, as at least some of Augusta National’s members certainly know, capitalism tends to win.

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