CTO European Tour Technology

Why Technology Is Key To Attracting Fans Back To Sporting Venues

By Community | September 30, 2021

Michael Cole, Chief Technology Officer of the European Tour, provides insight into how tech is enabling sporting organisations to draw fans back to stadiums and arenas.

After 18 months of playing golf behind closed doors, or to significantly reduced crowds, the site of thousands of fans descending on Wentworth Club for the BMW PGA Championship this month was a welcome relief. A sense of normality finally returning.

But COVID-19 will have a long tail. It’s easy to presume there is pent-up demand for a return to stadiums and tournaments, but we should not be complacent. For fans, there are likely to be concerns over extended safety measures diluting the experience, imminent financial challenges cutting household budgets, and the increasing popularity of alternative products such as e-sports to contend with. Fans have also enjoyed a wealth of behind the scenes digital and broadcast content since the start of the pandemic that has kept them connected to their favourite sports. In many respects, the armchair fan has never had it so good.

“Golf may not immediately strike the casual observer as a hotbed of technological innovation – but in some ways we are arguably the ultimate sporting test bed.”

At the European Tour we have thought long and hard about how we can utilise technology to enhance the experience of fans as they return en masse – and do this in a way that is easily repeatable across our 41 tournaments in 31 countries.

Golf may not immediately strike the casual observer as a hotbed of technological innovation – but in some ways we are arguably the ultimate sporting test bed. We are not dealing with one singular pitch or stadium – we have up to 156 players, competing across 18 “fields of play” over four days. These are surrounded by a small town comprising operational centres and hospitality pavilions, spectator villages and players lounges – most of which must be built from scratch. When you factor in a “down season” of just three days, the challenges become clear. 

But we have landed on a threefold vision for a digitally enhanced fan experience, and it’s one I believe can be applied to any sport.

Firstly, it’s to roll-out a converged and extended infrastructure, to ensure a truly “connected course” with digitally enabled administration and management processes that can be easily replicated at any tournament in the world. Push notifications to your phone telling you when the queue for a nearby food stall or toilet is gloriously empty? It’s the little things that can make a big difference to your experience.   

“We now collect an amazing 700,000 data points from our players at each tournament, giving us a wealth of fascinating insights to play with. The opportunities for things like in-game betting are obvious.”

But the real goal is immersive connectiveness, not to just technology but to the sport and the content it generates. We therefore want to go further and leverage emerging technologies such as AI, AR and IOT to create the “intelligent course”. This adds a layer of insight that can change the conversation in golf and attract new fans. It can also help bridge the gap between the spectators onsite and the armchair fan. For example, we now collect an amazing 700,000 data points from our players at each tournament, giving us a wealth of fascinating insights to play with. The opportunities for things like in-game betting are obvious.

The recent BMW PGA Championship, one of our flagship Rolex Series events, acted as a pilot for several new connected and intelligent course innovations. It was a paperless tournament, with QR codes replacing physical assets such as restaurant menus. All merchandise and catering outlets were contactless payment, and we introduced digital noticeboards which gave fans a one-click route to key information including course maps, leaderboards and tee times. Ticketing was also paperless, via an outbox web-based solution that did not require any dedicated apps, and we trialled a dynamic pricing model for the first time.

We also launched an AR experience that used gaming technology to create a digital twin of the 18th hole at Wentworth. All served from the cloud, this was presented on large screens in hospitality and merchandise areas and allowed spectators to see live, real-time updates on player and ball positions on that infamous closing hole. We also rolled the concept out to the displays in our fan zone, making sure you are always in the know with key highlights and live stats tracking – even when queuing.

“In the same way that rapid technological innovation has been a saving grace and enabler for businesses during the pandemic, it can now ensure a safer, seamless, and better-connected fan experience.”

The final step is to industrialise the connected and intelligent course to ensure they can be deployable across our full schedule of tournaments. This can only be achieved by delivered more cloud-based services, what we call “Tournament-as-a-Service”. Think of it as a “tournament in a box” that guarantees a world class service whether they’re staged and promoted by the European Tour, third parties or our co-sanctioning partners. After all, if you want to be a world class entertainment brand, you must be world class at every touch point.

No-one wished for COVID-19, but it has certainly helped accelerate innovation towards our vision of the Tournament-as-a-Service and the rollout of 5G will be unlock even more opportunities (we are testing a 5G infrastructure rollout at the Madrid Open next month in conjunction with Telefonica).

In the same way that rapid technological innovation has been a saving grace and enabler for businesses during the pandemic, it can now ensure a safer, seamless, and better-connected fan experience. If a fan visits a sporting event in 2022 and feels that the experience is simply “back to normal” compared to 2019 – then I think we have failed them. After all, as the adage says, you should never let a crisis go to waste.   

Michael Cole is Chief Technology Officer at the PGA European Tour and Ryder Cup Europe.

CTO European Tour Technology