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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

“We can use AI, AR and IoT to transform golf,” says European Tour CTO Michael Cole

“My ambition is to create a truly connected tour whereby we have the ability to engage and connect with everything across that course, and when everything is connected then anything is possible – and if we can get to that point then we are truly on our way of fulfilling our vision of tech and systems in the transformation of global golf.”

These are the words of the European Tour and Ryder Cup chief technology officer (CTO) Michael Cole, whose challenge as an IT leader is made greater because of the uniqueness of the organisation and of the sport itself.

“We run 47 tournaments in our European Tour schedule across 30 countries in five different continents and we have a closed season that extends to just three days – so operationally we are almost always on the go,” he explains.

Cole and his team have to prepare for tournaments for tee off in the early hours of a Thursday morning, and a typical tournament will run for four days. As soon as it is finished, his team have to prepare themselves for the next tournament which will be roughly three days later.

In addition, the team have to address a footprint for a field of play which runs up to 150 acres – or the equivalent of around 80 football pitches.

“A golf course is effectively a greenfield site, so everything we do is a temporary overlay, meaning we have to deploy up to five different infrastructures on each course; our scoring system, public Wi-Fi, back office operations, on-site tournament TV and infrastructure for the broadcast community – that’s quite an investment in time, costs and operational complexity,” he states.

The organisation has re-evaluated these different types of infrastructures, and recently moved from a joint venture with IMG for its production services to bringing its production in-house, albeit still using IMG to provide some of its services.

“This enables us to have far greater control of our broadcast and content production; we produce in excess of 900 hours of live programming across a season, and on top of that we produce 75 hours of non-live programming, so making those changes in terms of how we are producing content was critical to our overarching content,” Cole explains.

But this was only part of the story, the organisation also re-evaluated how it distributed that content on a worldwide scale. It drew up a shortlist of global companies that could help with both gaining more control and of distribution and this led to a partnership and collaboration with Tata Communications.

“Tata have the largest fibre cable network in the world, which means they can bring an extra level of capacity to help us distribute high quality content out to broadcasters from the many remote places in which golf courses are located,” Cole states.

“It’s rare we work with a golf course that is fully connected so we needed a partner that has the capability to work with us wherever the golf course was – in Europe, the Middle East or Asia – and the ability to take content we’re producing through the tournament and to efficiently and economically transport that to the broadcast rights holders,” he adds.

While Tata has helped with some of the core infrastructure that The European Tour requires, Cole says that it has also been brought on board to help the Tour to innovate.

“We need to change the conversation in golf and widen the interest in the product. We are looking at how we can improve the product and appealing to a younger audience; things like augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) allow us to mine that data and enhance the content for new audiences,” he says.

Technology will be used to improve the experience for those who can’t attend tournaments, and Cole is open to using some of the methods already tried and tested by Tata in F1 and MotoGP.

But it is also being used to improve the experience in person. For example, at the Ryder Cup in Paris this September, there will be a new infrastructure around beaconing that will be used to monitor crowd levels and analyse the behaviour of spectators.

“We’ll be looking at leveraging this for both operational means but also for our sponsors through context-based marketing. Monitoring trigger points when spectators come to certain zones gives us great ability to push marketing information and promotions out to them,” Cole says.

The data could be to encourage consumers to go to a different concession site where there are fewer queues, or to a certain site where there is a promotion on, or to understand where their favourite players are on the course.

“Navigating around a 150 acre site has never been easy but through tech and beaconing and crowd monitoring, we hope to make it far easier for the spectator at key tournaments like the Ryder Cup and that will be extended to European Tour tournaments as well,” Cole states.