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CIO interview: Michael Cole, European Tour and Ryder Cup

Michael Cole, chief technology officer at the European Tour and Ryder Cup, discusses how he is helping the sport of golf broaden its appeal through his “connected course” digital transformation vision

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How digital is driving golf to the connected course

Millennials are killing golf. Having already done away with cable television subscriptions, diamonds, marmalade, casual dining chains, motorcycles and napkins, among other things, the royal and ancient game is also in trouble as the early-retiring baby boomer generation begins to age out and people born from around 1981 onwards show little interest in taking up their parents’ clubs.

Such is the extent of the problem in the US that planners are starting to give serious consideration to how to manage the vast tracts of suburban land opened up by closed golf courses, repurposing them for affordable housing or parks.

Could digital transformation come to golf’s rescue? While Michael Cole, chief technology officer (CTO) at the European Tour and Ryder Cup, does not explicitly discuss the sport’s millennial problem when he sits down with Computer Weekly to talk about his work, his vision of a “connected course” stands out as a way for golf to update itself and broaden its appeal to an always-online generation that loves getting outdoors, but wants to take its smartphone along to share the experience.

One thing is for sure, the need to attract new fans and retain old ones is not lost on the organisation’s new IT head, who is now working with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s (HPE’s) networking business, Aruba, to reinvent the organisation’s IT and prepare France’s prestigious Le Golf National course for the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Cole has been working in sports technology for many years. Between 2008 and 2012 he played a key role behind the scenes at the 2012 London Olympics at BT Global Services, and as co-founder of his own communications consultancy, went on to advise and work alongside major technology brands and government agencies at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil and the 2018 winter games in South Korea.

He came to the European Tour and Ryder Cup six months ago with a mission to take on and overhaul the organisation’s IT, digital systems, data management and scoring systems.

However, in conversation at Aruba’s annual Atmosphere user conference, which took place this year beside the Adriatic Sea in Croatia, Cole shies away from making bold pronouncements on innovation in sports IT. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the sport’s traditional image.

“I believe in tried and tested technology. I have no great desire to be the great innovator and introduce that to golf, but I’m very happy to take prudent concepts from the wider sporting industry and apply them to golf to widen the experience and provide a richer experience for spectators, players, TV and stakeholders,” he says.

Unique challenges

Furthermore, says Cole, from a technological perspective the European Tour has some challenges that quite simply don’t exist elsewhere in the sporting industry.

For example, his IT team runs more than 40 events across five continents – not just in Europe – and with a three-day closed season (compared with months in the case of Formula 1 or the Premier League), opportunities for them to sit back, take stock and plan for the future are few and far between.

Simply preparing each course for the day-to-day technology demands of a modern golf tournament is a full-time job in itself. The vast majority (around 90%) of the courses visited by the European Tour are on greenfield sites with no permanent IT infrastructure in place, but each one needs to support the demands of TV broadcasters, the tour’s own scoring and operational back-end systems and, increasingly, wireless services for spectators.

“One big challenge we have is getting courses technically ready for tournaments,” says Cole. “This often means deploying 10km to 15km of fibre in the ground.”

“I believe in tried and tested technology. I’m very happy to take prudent concepts from the wider sporting industry and apply them to golf to widen the experience and provide a richer experience for spectators, players, TV and stakeholders”

Michael Cole, European Tour and Ryder Cup

Indeed, one of the first big purchases that Cole signed off on as CTO – which he says came as something of a surprise – was a micro-trenching digger, the same sort of equipment used by communications service providers (CSPs) to lay large amounts of fibre quickly, cost-effectively and with minimal disruption.

“It makes it more efficient to embed fibre, but it’s not an optimal technology or service for us moving forward, so we are already looking at technologies such as 5G,” says Cole.

“Through the investment in technology we’ve made with Aruba we’ll be operating more of a converged infrastructure, and with future availability of high-speed wireless we’ll access technologies such as white space or 5G, which will further enable us to implement more effective technology across each tournament.

“In doing so we can start to standardise on the technology solutions we deploy. That’s critical because to fully function I need ubiquity of access – 100% availability across the course whether through Wi-Fi, cellular or white space. Without that, our operations can’t deliver, our scoring systems cannot function and our commercial family [sponsors, partners, etc] cannot be effective in their activation programmes,” he says.

For Cole, siting networking infrastructure within a wider digital strategy is critical as his organisation supports the transformation of the wider sport, hence his engagement with HPE and Aruba, which he says is the largest investment the European Tour has ever made in technology.

“The investment in Aruba infrastructure will effectively allow us to converge the many overlay networks we currently deploy for tournaments today,” he says.

“Within that are a number of application stacks available from Aruba, such as [network management tool] AirWave which will allow us to manage in a more integrated way the infrastructure we deploy. We have also invested in the ClearPass product to enable us to provide far more efficient access control and onboarding for spectator experience across the Wi-Fi infrastructure. And third, we have full access to the Meridian development platform that lets us work with Aruba’s range of third-party technology partners.”

Data insight is the key

Ultimately, the aim of the tour’s digital strategy is to help it generate better insights for staff, players, coaches, stakeholders and partners, and for fans and spectators, through the collection of data from devices and sensors on the Aruba network.

This hinges on the ability to collate more data from “inside the ropes” than ever before, and making it available in as many ways as possible, says Cole.

From the perspective of the organisers, players and coaches, the impact of this should be fairly obvious – it will enable them to enhance player performance during the game. Ahead of the 2018 Ryder Cup, the European team captain, Denmark’s Thomas Bjørn, is already using the technology to enhance his team selection and pairing strategy for the event.

From the perspective of the spectators, says Cole, it creates “a more immersive environment”, using the same data to create a “performance zone” for fans to give them more insight into how the players are playing through relevant statistics.

“For the broader spectator, the tech allows us to give them a much more immersive experience because we can provide an interactive map, for example, to allow them to find their way around the course,” says Cole.

Location data will also bring new insights into how spectators move around the course. With the action playing out across a wide area, behaviour patterns are quite different to a football match, for example, where spectators arrive, sit in the same place for 90 minutes (with a quick run to the toilets at half-time) and then go home.

“Up to this point we believed spectators either followed feature groups or remained stationary and watched players as they came through, but with the investment we’re making we can now truly understand those behaviours because now we can track smartphones through beacon technology,” says Cole.

“Data needs to be at the heart of the European Tour and golf in general. Data is a new currency that enables us to truly enable our vision to be a compelling entertainment company”
Michael Cole, European Tour and Ryder Cup

“We will be analysing this data to ensure we have a better insight into those behaviours. That information we will share with partners, and it also becomes useful to our operations teams for back of house, looking at way-finding and how crowds are moving from one hole to another and making sure we have sufficient facilities in place to better serve them.”

Partners and sponsors

A key part of audience extension is also about enabling the commercial family to do some of the legwork on the tour’s behalf. This year, the Ryder Cup’s family of partners, suppliers and licensees includes consumer brands such as Accor Hotels, Adidas, BMW, Emirates, Lacoste, Moët Hennessy and Nike, as well as a number of other corporations and specialist golfing brands.

To this end, Cole aims to share all the data generated across the connected course as widely as possible among this family, giving the sponsors and partners access to, for example, relevant information on spectator location and movement to increase their potential engagement. This will also pay off for spectators, who could, for example, access information relating to a sponsor-run event or sales concession.

“The Aruba infrastructure will help us also to work with them in a multitude of ways, which is something we have not been able to do before,” says Cole.

“We want to showcase the capabilities the technology can provide to help open their minds as to how we can work with them to widen participation in golf, focusing not just on the superfans, but to try to create a broader spectator experience across younger generations in new territories.

“For us, data needs to be at the heart of the European Tour and golf in general. Data is a new currency that enables us to truly enable our vision to be a compelling entertainment company.

“I want to connect everything within the connected course, and in doing so, once everything is connected, anything becomes possible.”

Read more about CIOs in sport

  • Embracing change at an institution more than 200 years old can be a sticky wicket, but the England and Wales Cricket Board’s head of IT, Damian Smith, is batting for a digitally enabled future.
  • Williams Martini Racing CIO Graeme Hackland discusses network infrastructure, data analytics and the future for wearable tech and augmented reality in Formula 1 motor racing.
  • As Rio de Janeiro got ready to host the 2016 Summer Olympics, Computer Weekly spoke to Elly Resende, the man in charge of its IT.

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