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UKGF Keith Pelley Newsletter Copy – Dec 2021
After 18 months of playing golf behind closed doors, or to significantly reduced crowds, the site of thousands of fans descending on our tournaments in recent months has been 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. At the European Tour group 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 47 tournaments in 27 countries on the flagship DP World Tour. We’ve also worked hard to partner with the right technology vendors, who may be willing to use golf as a test bed to pilot and promote their latest innovations – a win win for us – as they also come on board as an Official Tour Partner. Embracing technology is the theme of my message to you today.
Golf may not immediately strike the casual observer as a hotbed of technological innovation – but we are arguably the ultimate sporting test bed. We are not dealing with one singular pitch or stadium – at the Tour we have up to 156 players, competing across 18 "fields of play” over four days. These are surrounded by infrastructure 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.
Beyond tournament golf, the introduction of Toptracer technology, and the growing popularity of smart GPS golf watches and radar ball tracking devices as tools to help the recreational player, show that we are in a golden age of golf as a tech enabled sport. At the Tour, we have landed on a threefold vision for a digitally enhanced fan experience that we are investing heavily in, 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. 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. September’s BMW PGA Championship 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 virtual twin of the holes 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 want to roll this out in a mobile app form soon – ensuring fans always know what is happening, and crucially why it is important, regardless of where they are on the course.
The final step is to industrialise the connected and intelligent course to ensure they can be deployable via the Cloud across our full schedule of tournaments. This is what we call "Tournaments-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 us, third parties, or our co-sanctioning partners. After all, if you want to be a world class entertainment brand, which we do, you must be world class at every touch point. As our Chief Technology Officer, Michael Cole, is fond of saying, we used to build small towns at our tournaments, but we now build smart cities.
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 tested a 5G infrastructure rollout at the Madrid Open in October in partnership with Telefonica). In 2021 our journey from self-proclaimed tech laggard only four years ago, to sporting tech innovator, has ramped up.
We were recently ranked 4th in the Sport Technology Group’s Power 100 List – a remarkable accolade, and we’ve signed up new technology partners this year such as Fortinet, Capgemini and Zoom to help us on our journey. 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 in golf. 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. -Ends-