Professional golf is one of the most popular sports worldwide. When the global pandemic first hit, millions of people were disappointed with the halt of the sport, even if they understood why that had to happen. Michael Cole, chief technology officer of the PGA European Tour, was determined to find a way to bring back golf safely and as quickly as possible. I talked to him about how he made this return possible, as well as what’s next for the professional sport. You can read excerpts from our conversation below.
When the pandemic hit, professional sports were suspended, including golf. What challenges were you facing due to the suspension, and how were you thinking about solving them?
One of our big challenges is that we have no real down season; our closed season is three days in November. So we go from one season to the next immediately, which, from a technological perspective, means we don't get the time to do a lot of development work. COVID-19 forced us to have some downtime, which created this opportunity to focus on development and training.
We had two major developments taking place: our membership and entry system, as well as our on-venue scoring system. Both of these new systems have been two-to-three years in development, and they coincided with the pandemic lockdown period, which meant we were able to really focus on the final acceleration of their development and do critical onboarding for our operations team. This year has been an interesting period in technology because it’s enabled us to focus on those long-standing developments that are helping us to transform the technological landscape at the European Tour.
In addition, we also had the challenge of COVID-19 to contend with. It forced us to look at how technology was going to play a key role in returning the sport back for the fans, the players, our commercial partners, and our broadcasters. We had to ensure the health and safety of all of our players and operational staff to enable the return of our tournaments, and technology has played a critical role in that. It's what I call a “COVID defense ecosystem” because it incorporates a number of key components, including anything from the scheduling of tests for everyone onsite to the daily assessment of symptom checking and mandatory training of new protocol and processes.
We also had to create a completely contactless environment. Traditionally, players show up at our office before a tournament and they have a lot of physical interaction. For example, they sign a form to say they're present at the tournament and take a lot of literature from that office: yardage information, pin positions, course maps, tee times, and so on. So, we had to create a connectionless environment and put all of the new protocol and processes online very quickly to safeguard social distancing. Now, players can register their presence at tournaments online and obtain all of the information that typically would be in hard-copy format. This is not revolutionary, but it has changed the way we now interact and engage with players.
Workday also plays a big part in helping us create a contactless environment. During this time, Workday has enabled us to simplify our back-end processes and create more automation in our business. By doing that and becoming more accessible wherever our people are across the world, we’re improving efficiency out of the offices. That directly underpins our COVID-19 health strategy by minimizing human-to-human interactions.
“Automation is creating less need for contact, and that builds a healthy and safe environment where all of our employees, players, and fans can coexist, operate, and enjoy the sport.”Michael Cole Chief Technology Officer PGA European Tour
How are you leveraging technology to adapt to golf’s “new normal” and engage with fans?
There is only one fan right now and that's the armchair fan, which puts even more focus on TV. This means we have to look at new ways we can engage with that fan in a more compelling manner. COVID-19 has enabled us to refocus on the TV product and drive connection to the armchair fan in the same way as a spectator on-course. And we’re also starting to think about scaling up and planning for a day when guests and fans will be permitted back on the golf course.
As human beings, we talk a lot about more. Naturally, more just sounds better. But, when we look at moving forward in this new normality, less is more critical. Now, we're talking about creating ticketless, contactless, and cashless environments.
As I mentioned before, Workday has a key role to play, both in the contactless environment through driving more self-management and automation, but also in this cashless environment. We want fans to come back to our world and not be given hard-copy tickets anymore; instead they're going to have the ticket embedded within their mobile phone. And that mobile phone is also going to be the source of their currency as well.
When you enter into a cashless environment, you've got to have the back-end systems to enable that to happen because you're bringing your back-office system into the front. From a spectator perspective, we need to integrate our front-end concessions—the person that is purchasing the merchandise, or the hot dog, or the pint of beer—to transact on the course in a cashless way, and that transaction will eventually be fully integrated into our back-end systems.
Here’s another scenario. If a contractor is onsite and wants to purchase WiFi services, or environmental services like a Portakabin, or temporary power, then historically, that's been a very manually-orchestrated process to take that order onsite and deliver those services. Where we want to get to in the future is fully automating that rate-card concept. Workday will give us a mechanism to do that so we can take the order online and fulfill that order on the course in a completely automated way. That’s why I'm so excited about bringing on board cloud-based services like Workday that will allow us to get into that full automation of financial processing across our operational delivery. This efficiency and automation is creating less need for contact, and that builds a healthy and safer environment in which all of our employees, players, and fans can coexist, operate, and enjoy the sport.
Any lessons to share on how IT leaders can be more agile and quickly adjust to new projects and initiatives?
I'm a bit of a newbie to the golf industry—I joined the organization less than three years ago, so I came in with the benefit of not being a golfer and not being heavily involved in the golf industry. That brings forward the opportunity for fresh insight to look beyond the immediacy of the sport and find other ideas and pathways that we can bring into our world. But, I don't think that you have to create the invention. You don’t need to build from scratch; you can co-create with your commercial partners or take ideas from the broader industry.
One of the things that I noticed early on is that golf is a fairly fragmented industry. From a technological perspective, there wasn't a standard blueprint that held all of our industry’s technologies together. I created the Technology in Golf Forum, and we have representation from PGA Tour, PGA of America, the R&A, the LPGA, and the Ladies' European Tour. It’s great because we're all sharing key learnings, insights, and ideas with one another.
The technology industry has become quite populated with the next must-have innovation, so this forum allows us to jump into a shortlist and really double down on the best solution to give us the maximum value in the quickest time possible. That's been valuable to me, but I've also extended that by running a similar forum across the broader sports industry, which includes representation from the All England Club, the IOC, Formula 1, and the English Cricket Board.
The key learning point is you don’t have to create something new. Look across the industry and figure out where those great ideas can be adapted and adopted into your specific environment. That’s the greatest and most efficient way to gain successful outcomes.
COVID-19 wasn’t welcomed by any of us and may still be with us for some considerable time. However, the pandemic has brought on a period of technological change that has accelerated innovation, evolved our product, and advanced efficiency in our business, putting the European Tour at the forefront of technology in sports.