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CIO interview: Michael Cole, CTO, PGA European Tour

Younger generations are turning away from golf – so golf is turning to technology to revolutionise the sport and improve engagement with fans and players

Michael Cole, chief technology officer (CTO) for the PGA European Tour, is more of a tennis player than a golfer – but that doesn’t stop him relishing every second of leading technology at the organisation that is responsible for managing and operating men’s professional golf in Europe.

“It’s a phenomenal role,” he says. “Technology has a pivotal role to play in golf, and has the ability to transform the sport, because of the degree of technicality that exists within the game. So, to be able to take my experience and my learnings, and apply that into this industry, and demonstrate how technology can truly help in the transformation of global golf, is incredibly rewarding.”

Computer Weekly chats with Cole overlooking the 18th green at Wentworth during the recent BMW PGA Championship. It’s just one of the 49 professional golf tournaments across 29 countries that the European Tour stages and supports during a hectic annual calendar.

Cole is also a leader in his industry and he runs a regular technology and golf forum that brings together representatives from around the globe. “The industry recognises where it’s been, but it also recognises where it wants to get to – and we, as the European Tour, are absolutely driving that amplification in the transformation of the sport through technology,” he says.

Computer Weekly last caught up with Cole in 2018, when he explained how the organisation was involved in a number of initiatives including new networks, managing infrastructure between different tournaments, exploiting big data to generate better insight on players and using location data to improve customer engagement.

Cole says a key element of his strategy for the 12 months since then has been to make more use of the cloud and for the organisation to become less reliant on its residual datacentre. He has been able to deliver to that aim by working with key partners, such as Tata Communications. The European Tour’s finance and HR systems are now delivered from the cloud, as well as worldwide player rankings.

“Technology has a pivotal role to play in golf, and has the ability to transform the sport”

Michael Cole, PGA European Tour

The organisation has also launched new web and mobile apps. To support that development, Cole says the IT department had to re-engineer back-end data services, including how the business processes information. Once again, on-demand IT has been key.

“We have gone from a very clunky server-based architecture, where everything got transferred from machine to machine through FTP [file transfer protocol] transfers, to one where that whole environment now sits in the cloud, called the European Tour Exchange,” he says. “We have created an API [application programming interface] framework around that and we now have much greater efficiency around how we’re processing data.”

Cole says the business uses Microsoft Azure for a lot of its cloud-based systems, but Microsoft is not used exclusively. In fact, while many CIOs struggle to find the cloud and data expertise they need, the European Tour has been able to complete a lot of the data-processing work for some of its recent technological developments in-house.

“Because of the nuances of golf, we felt we had very capable people and the experience internally to create our European Tour Exchange,” he says.

Building the intelligent course

Cole has also focused on other applications over the past 12 months, including tournament administration systems. He says these platforms are critical in terms of how the European Tour manages golf professionals around the continent. That process requires engaging with more than 1,000 elite golfers and the average participation for players is about 23 tournaments a year.

“When it comes to transacting with them, we now have a fully PCI-compliant system in place,” says Cole. “We have addressed the General Data Protection Regulation – whether that’s data privacy for spectators, or whether it’s data privacy in the business or portfolio compliance – far more effectively and efficiently than might been have been possible in the past.”

Cole says it is probably true to say that the European Tour had under-invested in technology in certain areas before his arrival two years ago. He says there was an immediate requirement to transform the technology landscape – and, as he has already highlighted, that process is well under way.

“Technology should never drive the business; technology should be an enabler of the business,” he says. “We are very pleased with the progress that’s been made. The next task is really to look at the tournament side out on the course.”

It is here that Cole stresses the vital role of connectivity and what he calls “the intelligent course”, where sensors, networks and data help to create the golf course of the future.

“If you build connectivity, you can start to move up a level – and a high level of intelligence helps us to drive operational benefits, commercial partner benefits, and merchandising benefits,” he says.

Delivering the tournament-as-a-service

Cole’s focus on the intelligent course might be fresh, but the collection of data is nothing new to the European Tour, which starting tracking scoring in 1972. The process began on a tournament-by-tournament basis, then it went round by round, and then it went hole by hole in the late 1990s. Now the level of connectivity is set to reach a new stage.

“What you’re going to see from quarter one next year is real-time scoring on every player – and not only on scoring, but actual data points,” he says. “We’re going to be collecting in the region of 15 data points for every player, every stroke, every hole, every round. And that will create such a depth of data.

“That is only possible because of the technology and the level of connectivity – and that’s what I mean by the intelligent course. We’ve got multiple data points – from crowd analytics to pace of play – and these data points that rely on connectivity and the driving of insights will help to boost the experiences of players, spectators and our stakeholders.”

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Cole says data-collection processes today rely on his team placing sensors wherever they are permitted to put them. The European Tour has sensors on the people walking the course to take scores and on the referees. At the BMW PGA Championship, GPS systems were also placed in players’ golf bags. In the future, there may be sensors on balls and in clubs.

The ultimate aim of Cole’s connected course initiative is to create digitally enabled administration and management processes that can be easily replicated at any tournament in the world. That will mean using on-demand IT services to support world-class delivery in every tournament in every country.

“That can only be achieved if you start to deliver services in a smart way, for example from the cloud,” he says, suggesting that the aim is to deliver standardised but high-quality, data-enabled tournaments at every location. “We want to start with the connected course, create an intelligent layer, and then build that into a tournament-as-a-service.”

Finding new sources of creativity

Cole is actively hunting for innovations that can help to build the intelligent course of the future. He hopes a new technology innovation contest – being run by the European Tour and its technology partner Tata Communications – will help his organisation identify more opportunities for digital transformation

The innovation contest will support startups as they search for innovations in connectivity and data. The aim is to improve fan experiences in golf and help solve some of the operational problems that they experience during large tournaments. The winning idea will be rolled out at the European Tour’s major competitions.

“We have issued some fairly broad themes,” says Cole. “And we don’t actually know where the great ideas are going to come from. Therefore, we actually don’t really understand where all the ideas are going to apply, either. So I’ve got an idea where my key challenges are, but sometimes it’s about what you don’t know – and somebody comes up with just a fantastic idea and you think, ‘brilliant’.”

There are a few areas that Cole expects to be a key focus for the innovation project. These include crowd analytics, crowd behaviours, and marketing and engagement. He says it can be tough to shift high volumes of people in the narrow, condensed areas of a golf course. Data-led innovation can help and potentially provide a source of revenue, too.

“Understanding the ebb and the flow of a crowd is critical, for both health and safety and operational logistics,” he says.

“There is also an element for commercial partners – being able to report to those partners how many people came through, how long they were dwelling and, if they left, whether they came back. What that allows you to do is build up a profile of behaviours around the spectator and the guest experience.”

Using technology to beat the bunkers

Golf remains a sport in transition. There is evidence of dropping participation, as the younger generation seems more interested in other pastimes. The aim is to use technology to transform perceptions of the sport for the better – and Cole is keen to drive a change in opinions, despite the barriers he might encounter.

“The biggest challenges we face are some of the traditions of the game,” he says. “Undoubtedly, there are some things that technology can bring that perhaps the more traditional stakeholders in the game will challenge. The other major challenge we have is meeting the expectations of a very fanatical and loyal fan base.

“However, our biggest challenge is repeatability. And this all comes back to having a connected course, where you build up your intelligence and data collection. You might deploy technology and get it right for one tournament, but actually you need to repeat that 48 times in 49 tournaments in 29 countries. That is the ultimate challenge.”

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