When it comes to combining sports and data, few have been doing it for as long as the PGA European Tour.

“We've been collecting data since ‘72,” says Michael Cole, chief technology officer of the Ryder Cup and European Tour.

“We were collecting scoring data on a tournament by tournament [basis], and then we evolved and collected on a round by round and now we collect on a hole by hole. And that equates to around about 23 ish thousand in data points in any tournament.”

However, in the time since Cole took the position of CTO, the sport’s technological capabilities have expanded rapidly, with a change in mindset and the adoption of extensive infrastructure from HPE Aruba that can be rapidly deployed at golf courses to provide full, town-sized networks for the duration of events.

“Up to that point, I think that it's true to say that the European Tour relied upon a lot of legacy systems. And technology certainly didn't have a place at the executive team. So now all of that's changed,” he says.

“As a CTO, I sit on the executive team, and I am driving the transformation of the landscape to ensure that technology is truly underpinning our transformation of global growth. So [there have been] some big, big changes, particularly over the last 18 months, and that will continue as we progress.”

As the sport enters 2020, these changes will be particularly pronounced, with the realisation of what Cole describes as his “2020 vision”: a “two to three-year programme” that the European Tour is currently mid-way through.

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The Ryder Cup in 2020: More data, more benefits

Central to this transformation is a new system, which is set to go live in January 2020, that will provide a “huge step forward” in the level of data collected at tournaments.

“We will be collecting in the region of 15 data points for every player on every hole and taking that data and feeding it into the systems in real-time. And that will equate to around about 700,000 data points,” he says.

“And that's just data points. It's the derivatives and the stats that you derive from those data points, which means that we will have the ability to generate literally millions of stats per tournament.”

“You will see us take a huge step forward in terms of the generation of player-based data.”

While big numbers always sound impressive, the true benefits lie in how that data can be used.

“Our opportunity is how we make that data purposeful. We've already created in the region of 30 to 40 different use cases in terms of taking that data, transposing that data from insight into intelligence, and then repurposing it for different audiences, which could be spectators, it could be commentators, the media, it could be clients and – in practice – all of those,” says Cole.

“So you will see us take a huge step forward in terms of the generation of, particularly, player-based data.”

Digital transformation challenges

While the benefits of the change are set to be felt on the course, it has been driven by dramatic transformation across the organisation.

“It became apparent to me that the European tour was predicated on a technological landscape that, whilst functional for its current needs, was not really the roadmap into the future,” he says.

“And therefore, we had to embark on a transformation project that has really turned every stone and we're addressing everything literally from the back office, right through to the core, and how we're driving some of those front-end systems right out to the tournament as well.”

This has involved a dramatic restructuring of processes to minimise the need for manual involvement in repetitive tasks.

“In certain parts of our business, probably 80% of our processes were manually driven: lots of spreadsheets, lots of manual intervention and lots of steps in the process. Some of our processes were way in excess of 300 steps to do something fairly mundane but essential,” he says.

“In certain parts of our business, probably 80% of our processes were manually driven.”

“We're already seeing some huge benefits where technology is already playing a bigger part in driving that efficiency, taking out inefficiency, taking out some of those manual interventions.”

Any digital transformation project of this scale is, of course, not without its challenges. However, Cole is positive about how the organisation responded to the upheaval.

“I always break everything down into three levels: people, process and systems. So as the CTO you have your maximum control and influence over two of those levels, which is the processes and the systems, and to some extent you have less control or influence over people. So you have to work with the teams; you have to work with the people and it requires – at times – a cultural change and mind-shift change,” he says.

“But the organisation is one that recognises what it needs to do and recognises that it needs to move forward. And it's been very encouraging in terms of the receptiveness of individuals and teams and parts of the business to work with me and my team on this this transformation.”

Enhancing the game: Data benefits for players

With so much data being added to the game there are, of course, significant benefits for players.

“Whether it's on an individual basis or whether it's on a team basis for something like the Ryder Cup, the players are starting to recognise the power of data analytics and what it can mean to their game,” he says.

However, some are keener to embrace these than others.

“The younger players are embracing technology in a far more engaging way; they recognise what it can do to their game. In fact, Danny Willett, when he won the Masters in 2016, he attributed part of that success to technology because he was getting performance analytics and that was helping him to analyse his own game,” says Cole.

“The younger players are embracing technology in a far more engaging way; they recognise what it can do to their game.”

Players are also able to access enhanced data through the European Tour’s partner organisation 15th Club, which provides rich golf analytics, and which Cole says is seeing growing numbers of players opting to sign up. Data analytics is also increasingly being used to assess player performance in the run up to the Ryder Cup.

“The Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjørn, we created a dashboard for him which was based around the performance of the players before they were selected for the team and that enabled him to gain a degree of insight that better enabled him to choose his best team, particularly for his final four peaks. And that continued into the Ryder Cup,” he says.

“So we continue to use data analytics and to create that captain's dashboard. And that in fact allowed Thomas to determine what his pairing strategy was for the Ryder Cup.”

Transforming the spectator experience

While the game is undoubtedly being improved for players, it is also being transformed for spectators, in part through the analysis of data generated as they move around the course at the Ryder Cup.

Leveraging this data, which before the improvements harnessed around 100,000 devices, has allowed the organisation to produce wayfinding solutions for spectators – essential in environments that are “equivalent of well in excess of 100 football pitches”.

“We wanted to make it really easy for them, so we built wayfinding into the app, gave them the ability to understand where they were, which was important, [and] we gave them some options in terms of where they're trying to get to, to pavilion, or to food and beverage or to the merchandising tent, or to the village or even to their favourite player because we track the player groups. And then after selecting where they were aiming to go, the app then produced the optimum route in which to get there across the course.”

However, the opportunities for such infrastructure and the experiences it can offer go far beyond simply navigating golf courses.

“It's recognising that people just don't want flat content.”

“At the Ryder Cup, we delivered probably one of the most advanced digital apps that we ever have done, which is no real surprise given the rate technology is moving on. But it's recognising that people just don't want flat content,” says Cole.

“Streaming video is often quite challenging in today's world because so many of the linear rights and digital rights are kind of nailed up with rights holders, which is understandable. But we wanted the ability for fans on the course to have access to some content that was a little different, a little unusual, and was video-based, so we ensured that every press conference in our Media Centre was available and was streamed. And that content was fully accessible to our fans and we integrated that into our app.

“Commentary: fans these days love to have in-play commentary. And they get two choices, they can often go and buy a set of headphones on the course. And that's fine. But equally, we wanted fans that you know, wanted the same level of access but through the app. So we integrated that commentary through the app as well.”

Technology in golf: Realising the tournament as a service

With so much transformation having already occurred, it might be easy to expect a slowing down in the pace of change, but Cole sees far more developments as the European Tour and Ryder Cup realise the organisation’s “vision” over three distinct levels.

“One is around what I call the connected course, because when a course is truly connected you then have the ability to connect everything and then anything is possible, in terms of insights, that intelligence,” he says.

“And that then brings me on to the second tier, which is not only to develop the most connected course in golf, but equally to create the most intelligent course in golf as well. And utilising the technology, through player analytics, through crowd behaviours and through the IoT, and being able to track all aspects of operations, creating that intelligent level, and then using that intelligence to really drive the optimum performance for your operations in exactly the same way as a player would take those analytics and use it for their own optimal performance in playing the game.

“In the next two to four years, I want to go from building that small to large town to building a smart city.”

“Then the third layer of that vision that we have is really how can we industrialise that connectivity and that intelligence to be able to repeat it in any tournament in any country, across the world?”

With 46 tournaments on the organisation’s schedule, Cole sees technology as enabling the realisation of “the tournament as a service”.

“So how we can industrialise the solution, because nobody has the range of challenges that we have in sport. Being able to industrialise that solution and deploy it in that temporary world, in any country for any tournament is the vision that we have,” he says.

“And that is the transformational change that I want to see. So in the next two to four years, I want to go from building that small to large town to building a smart city.”

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