European Tour on its vision to create the connected golf course through the internet of things

Golf’s European Tour is on a path that will see the internet of things (IoT) taking a leading role in how the association transforms the game going forward. The IoT is going to influence the future of the European Tour’s operational side, for broadcasters, for players and referees, as well as for fans on-site and at home.

The smart city IoT concept is being utilised by the European Tour to create a roadmap of evolution to connect everything on any tournament site, from player strokes to overflowing dustbins. Millions of new data points will be generated which will in turn have the potential to inform commentators and broadcasters and further engage existing and new fans, as well as improving the game itself.

Commented Michael Cole, chief technology officer at European Tour: “Golf is complicated by its nature and technology has a key role to play in underpinning that complexity. It is a sport that provides a platform of great opportunity, because of the challenges it has to address on that complexity.”

On the latter, he explained: “We don’t have a single field of play; we have 18 holes, [so] have 18 fields of play. We don’t have a stadium environment; we have typically up to 40,000 to 50,000 people roaming what could be up to 300 acres of a venue [with up to 70,000 attendees at premium events]. We are totally about temporary overlay. More often than not we are playing our tournaments at Greenfield sites where we have to build that town and that infrastructure. This complexity doesn’t happen in any other sport, so we need to address the underpinning technology in a different way.

“Our strategy is one of a three staged vision. The first is to create what I call the connected course, because if we can create an underlying platform – call it the stage – then actually we have a mechanism for connecting not just people but players, and things, through the internet, and that is a key objective in our vision.

“We want to go from building a small town to a smart city. That is the goal. And that is where everything is connected then everything is possible”

“The second one is how we can work with the vast array of data that is now being collected across our tournaments. That data creates intelligence and insight that we can utilise around the operations, around our commercial partners, around our own marketing teams to drive real benefit as well.

“And then the third phase of that strategy is how we can industrialise a technology solution and how we can repeat it time and time again, 46 tournaments, 31 countries, and the only way we can really achieve that is delivering it through the cloud, what I call tournament as a service (TaaS),” he said. “And that allows us to deliver ubiquity of services from the cloud in a consistent way wherever we’re playing those tournaments. That’s a little bit about the complexity of the game, and the key role that technology has to play in that complexity.”

The untold story

Cole continued: “Golf has suffered for many years, I believe, in being an untold story and the true role that technology plays. I think we’re about to change that. We’re going to take this from being an untold story to being a told story. In this vanguard of innovation [European Tour is] going to be considered one of the leading adopters of that innovation across the sporting industry.”

As an organisation, the European Tour is, “transforming its, perhaps, under investment over the last 20 years”, Cole stated. “But the tournament side is all about digital transformation and that absolutely is about that smart city environment. The analogy I would use is when everything is connected then anything is possible. We can physically connect the fans, the players, the commentators, and any moving item, into this wonderful platform and use that connectivity to drive real intelligence. So we can be far more efficient in our operations, far more effective in how we go about delivering tournaments, and equally we can look at the commercialisation of that and where we can drive our consumer-based revenues.”

He continued: “The vision is to create the smart city environment, the IoT, with everything delivered through the cloud; that’s where we can get that ubiquity of world-class delivery, whatever the tournament, whatever the country. Now that’s a fairly bold vision to have and we’re not going to get there overnight, so we will look at how we can phase it in. We may consider for our premium events… an uplift in terms of technology, but over time, why wouldn’t we roll out the smart city concept to all of our tournaments?”

Fast advancements

Since 1972 the European Tour’s methods of scoring data collection have evolved from collecting by tournament, then round by round, then hole by hole. The latter version, which most recently would involve walking scorers of around 80 volunteers using handheld devices, collecting scores hole by hole, generated 20,000 to 25,000 data points.

Now, with a new data collection scheme for scoring in a deal announced with IMG in February this year, things are changing, said Cole, who added, “we will have around 60 full time professionals on the course, collecting up to 15 data points on every stroke for every player in real time.

“That is a huge leap forward,” said Cole. “That equates to anywhere up to 700,000 data points in any given tournament, and that creates huge opportunity. The difficult part in this jigsaw is actually collecting that data off the course.”

He said the European Tour has been trialling a system to retrieve data from courses for 12 months, and that is now set to go live in January 2020. “We now have a huge opportunity to take that data, to generate content and create that engagement.”

Cole noted that the Tour had worked up 10 to 15 different use cases for that data already, and part of that links into the European Tour and Tata Communications’ Innovation Hub competition.

He went on: “Part of our challenge was how we can create a fully immersive tournament experience and how we can create a greater portfolio of consumer products. We now have the data… We are moving into a new era, where we fully recognise that data is the new currency and from that new currency we can create really compelling engagement with our key stakeholders.”

Some of the European Tour’s current ideas are to use the data to create more informative systems for commentators and broadcaster, and to create greater insight for players around their own performance. “I just see huge and wonderful opportunity ahead of us,” said Cole. “But it starts from those 18 fields of play and creating that connected course, collecting that data, which then becomes our insight, our intelligence, and now how we repurpose that intelligence for all of our key stakeholders.”

Even areas such as automating the pace of play are having wider repercussions, Cole said. A proof of concept tested at the BMW PGA Championship this year was about managing the pace of play using sports timing consoles – T-Box displays – to better understand the tracking of players in the groups, where the challenges may be across the course, enabling referees to be proactive in how they intervene and how to drive pace forward, whilst also enabling the players to determine where they are within or against that schedule.

Cole explained how European Tour used the IoT to make this work: “What we did was use [the IoT to create] a virtual gate, so when a playing group came through the virtual gate they got a time stamp, so now we’re not reliant upon a referee having a visual element.

“When the playing group come into the T-Box, they can see red, amber or green whether they’re in position, whether they’re out of position or whether they’re borderline, so they can take more self-management. The combination of better visualisation in real time for the tournament director, for the referees, and for the players, was the solution we were working towards. Of course all of that requires technology, and it’s a great example of how that concept of the intelligent course really works.”

Yet he added the result is richer than just pushing the pace of play onwards: “The technology is doing the work and we are repurposing that data as real insight. It will help [referees] undertake their duties, it will help the players better self-manage their pace, and who knows, at some stage in the future this could be a further narrative for broadcasters, commentators and even for fans and spectators.”

Tech challenges

On the network upgrades necessary at each tournament site to manage the European Tour’s future as a smart city, Cole said: “We’re certainly on a transformational journey. I’ve been in this post for two years and already a lot of work has been undertaken in terms of changing the back office system and as an organisation becoming far more cloud-centric.”

Cole had the idea to create a European Tour smart city because when he started working with the association two years ago he realised, “we are deploying five infrastructures for every tournament and that got me thinking, there has to be a better way”.

He went on: “We talk about convergence; how we can converge five infrastructures into a smart environment, and if we’re going to make a smart environment, why aren’t we then reaching out and connecting other assets? The biggest challenges we had at the Ryder Cup – the biggest complaints we had at the Ryder Cup – were the queues were too big, the bins were never emptied, and the queues for the toilets were always too large. Well, we can address a lot of that with technology. In real time we can assess when bins need emptying, when the queues are getting too large we can influence the crowds.”

He added: “Are we ever going to get 100% connectivity across every course? Pretty unlikely. Maybe 5G will give us that at some stage in the future, but we’ll get close to it. We already deploy anywhere up to 600 access points for a given tournament; certainly the Ryder Cup is on that scale, but connectivity is pivotal to us, which is why we put a lot of effort into the deployment of WiFi services. In fact, if you take one our regular staged tournaments, we are deploying up to five physical infrastructures; public WiFi is one, scoring infrastructure is another, our broadcast infrastructure is a third, the fourth one is our operational, back of house, and our tournament TV, our on-course visualisation of the world feed, is the fifth.

“That is some undertaking; show me another sport that is delivering that complexity, that number of infrastructures across that volume of tournaments in that many countries for four days of operations. So it is a challenge. The importance of getting that connectivity is paramount to us.”

Smart cities

Cole said now is the time for the Tour to evolve: “European Tour, for many years, built a small, self contained town for every tournament. Part of our vision, and part of why we chose to work with world-class partners like Tata Communications, is we want to go from building a small town to a smart city. That is the goal. And that is where everything is connected then everything is possible, because now you’re driving real insight and intelligence right across what makes a real tournament function.”

He said the possibilities for a smart city tournament network are vast: “Through that smart city environment, wouldn’t it be great if we were able to understand crowd movements, so operations people were able to deploy volunteers and martials to be in the right place at the right time? Wouldn’t it be great if we were able to identify when waste bins were full so we could deploy prospective staff to empty those bins at the appropriate time? We could monitor queues for food and beverage, so when [those areas] become congested, [using our] smart infrastructure technology, using concepts that we are adopting via geofencing, we could push notifications, we can engage and we can influence behaviours out on the course.”

Cole concluded that the end goal is for the fans not to see the technology but to experience the European Tour more simplistically in terms of their understanding of the game, for that simplicity and understanding to generate excitement about the game, and to drive more loyalty from existing fans while creating new ones.

“As the European Tour we no longer see ourselves as a sports company with golf as a product; we see ourselves as an entertainment player and that’s about creating content. Our challenge is how we’re creating that content so that it can be consumed by a worldwide audience,” said Cole.

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