Michael Cole, CTO of the European Tour and Ryder Cup Europe, discusses the huge impact technology has had on golf and the wider sporting landscape. 

The sporting and digital landscapes are now so tightly intertwined that it is increasingly difficult to actually remember what consuming sport was like in the analogue age. Gone are the days when finding out sport results meant transistor radios glued to ears and fan displeasure was vented through the medium of a radio phone-in or a strongly worded letter.

Technology has dramatically changed the playing field for sport, notably in the relationship between fans and their favoured clubs, athletes, media organisations and brands.

Golf has battled against an ‘old fashioned’ label but the sport is now firmly rooted in the 21st century. Michael Cole, the Chief Technology Officer of the European Tour since 2017, has been leading golf’s recent evolution and believes that the synergy between technology and sport is only going to get closer.

The inclusion of technology in sport has changed unequivocally,” Cole tells Sport Industry insider. “I recall the London 2012 Olympics being referred to as the first truly ‘Social Media Games’, and even at that time, technology accounted for around 30% of the entire operating budget.

“In 2016, when Danny Willet won the Masters and his first major championship, he attributed his success to the insight into his performance enabled through data analytics . Now at the European Tour our vision is to provide the most immersive and data-driven  environment for fans, media, players and our commercial family, and of course when everything is connected, then anything as far as data s concerned becomes possible.”

The delivery of elite sporting events from a technology perspective isn’t something most fans spend time thinking about but for those involved in organising it is a fundamental part of the operation. A European Tour event, for example, is a complex technological beast.

“Golf is a complicated game to deliver, and certainly the European Tour is unique in sport,” Cole explains. “For the current schedule, we have 48 tournaments taking place in 31 countries across the world in five continents, more often at new venues requiring temporary provision of overlay and always with world-class delivery in mind – for players, spectators and our global audience.

“We operate for around 48 weeks a year, with just three days representing our closed season. No one else operates in this way, although if I’m honest it is a wonderful and largely untold story.

One of the biggest challenges in deploying technology for a golf event, is to appreciate that this is temporary overlay.  So, whatever is deployed for the Ryder Cup, or for any golf tournament for that matter, we have to ensure that it’s fully operational, flawless delivery for the three or four days of operation and then we have to decommission and move on to-to the next event.

“European Tour needs capability that is robust and we are aming to blueprint our technology, so that it can be packaged and easily transported to all our events, across those  31 countries

While technology infrastructure exists for operations, media, broadcasters and spectators – it is a focus on the latter that has won the European Tour many admirers of late. On the sporting side, the pioneering of formats such as Hero Challenges, Golf Sixes and Shot Clock Masters demonstrate the sport’s desire to attract new audiences and offer something different to existing ones.

during the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 30, 2018 in Paris, France.

Fan engagement is at the heart of the tour’s offering and in the 2018 Ryder Cup saw the introduction of interactive maps and targeted merchandising, which provided location-based offers and directed spectators to relevant content based on their profile.

It’s important to create an immersive environment for spectators where they always feel connected not just to technology, but to the golf itself,” Cole says. “However the size of the course presents a unique challenge. Unlike a football stadium that has a large, but manageable footprint, the size of a golf course is the equivalent to over 100 football pitches, which is quite a challenge to meet expectations, like ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage for example.

“But we are working in this framework and ultimately, we want to change golf from being just a sport for loyal fan experiences to becoming a true spectator experience for new audiences. The European Tour is aiming to provide a truly connected course and a compelling showcase opportunity across all our events for fans, players, media and a global audience.”

As well as spectators, the European Tour is also attempting to use technology to deepen its relationships with sponsors and partners. Brands are constantly searching for original ways to activate their partnerships and Cole is frequently exploring new solutions.

“Our commercial family have become far more demanding in their expectations for our technology to deliver on ROI against their business objectives, and we are now in a position to deliver.

“For example for the Ryder Cup, we were able to monitor and analyse spectator movements on the course. We created customised reports detailing crowd movements, dwell times and behaviour habits throughout the tournament and used the technology to activity engage with spectators using context-based marketing, or “push notifications”.  

We also produced for the first time a behind-the-scenes tour for over 300 senior technology directors, creating a compelling activation journey that boosted awareness of our infrastructure partner HPE’s involvement for the Ryder Cup, as well as promoting its capabilities and enhancing relationships across its client base.

Commercial partners have certainly begun to understand the significance of digital – which is no longer an option but a necessity for us at the European Tour. Whether communicating to armchair fans or engaging with on-course spectators with Virtual and Augmented Reality. It’s a new chapter and commercial expectations of our technology platforms have risen significantly.

Before joining the European Tour, Cole worked for BT on the London 2012 Olympics and he sees plenty of similarities between the two sporting properties.

“The Olympics delivers around 30 events across 90 venues and the European Tour has a very similar scope – the only difference being the scale, single venue versus multiple venues.

“In fact when we consider the Ryder Cup, we actually brought in number of the operating principles of the Olympics. We adopted their support structure of Technology Operations Centre (on-course Operations Centre), a Network Operations Centre (our on-course data centre) and a Venue Operations Centre (high priority sites such as media, merchandising and hospitality centres).

“We also share many similar technologies and suppliers as the Olympics, and we regularly meet with peers across the industry to share our experiences and expertise. If the Olympics possesses the ultimate in scale and scope, then we possess the ultimate in complexity!”

Constantly evolving and trying to develop new ways of reaching stakeholders, the European Tour has certainly emerged as a real flagbearer for technology in sport.