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Ryder Cup learns to embrace the mobile phone with HPE partnership

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 28: Tiger Woods of the United States plays a shot on the sixth during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 28, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

  • Hewlett Packard Enterprises uses supplier partnership to reposition itself as a data analytics and IoT enterprise
  • Wireless network allows organisers to harvest crowd behaviour data
  • Data can be used to refine merchandising offers, concession placement, and localised advertising

Until now the Ryder Cup has had an uneasy relationship with mobile phones. There was a period when the organisers would frisk fans for cellular devices and cameras on their way into the event, no matter which side of the Atlantic it was taking place.

It doesn’t look too enlightened in retrospect, but the tournament was only conforming to the prevailing golf orthodoxies at the time. The R&A placed a ban on mobiles at the Open between 2007 and 2012, after players at the 2006 tournament in Carnoustie complained that they were a distraction; the PGA Tour restricted their use to practice rounds at its events, and only overturned this rule in 2017. Augusta National continues to enforce a ban on smartphones, but then the US Masters have always proved to be an exception.

The heavy-handedness is evidence of the way player power and golf’s inviolable sense of etiquette have often taken precedence over the need to cater for fans and offers more weight to the argument that the sport has often failed to move with the times.

But a new partnership between Ryder Cup Europe and Hewlett Packard Enterprises suggests the atmosphere will be a lot more permissive when the players tee off at Le Golf National on Friday. HPE is providing purpose-built infrastructure that will enable fans to access near omnipresent Wi-Fi and an array of added services through their phones, after it signed a deal with the European Tour to be the Official Network Infrastructure Services Supplier for this year’s event and other tournaments on the European Tour calendar.

The deal, which is thought to be worth between £200,000 ($260,000/€225,000) and £500,000 plus value-in-kind, shares many of the attributes of the latest generation of B2B activations in which a technology partner aims to prove its products and services to a c-suite audience in the intensity of a live sports environment. HPE products will analyse data harvested from the crowd to provide commercial insights to the organisers and enriched, real-time experiences back to the fans in attendance.

For HPE, it represents almost as much of a strategic shift as it does for golf and the Ryder Cup. The company has made a large investment in its Intelligent Edge portfolio to reposition itself as a data analytics firm operating in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) sector, rather than one synonymous with data centres and data infrastructure.

“It’s the value of real-time processing of data in the palms of people’s hands and changing their environment and making decisions based on real-time insights of how people interact with facilities, events, celebrities and social media,” explains Michael Sweeney, territory manager for HPE.

Crowd dynamics

The course-wide Wi-Fi connectivity provided by 700 access points, roughly 130 ethernet switches and two operation centres will underpin all Ryder Cup, sponsor and media operations at the course but, as Sweeney suggests, the additional data analysis services HPE can provide are where the real interest lies. One of its technologies, an analytics and location engine, will help to understand the crowd data fed back to the Wi-Fi access points by the fans that use the service at Le Golf National on each of the three days.

“We can take some really high-value analytics out of this solution and then translate it into actionable intelligence for the operational staff,” says Sweeney. “Where are the mobile devices in relation to our beacons and our Wi-Fi access points? Where have those devices come from, where are they going to and how long have they been online? How long have they dwelled in a certain place? And how has their behaviour changed over the weekend? What devices can be grouped together as a group of friends or as a corporate entity?”

Francesco Molinari of Europe plays his second shot on the eigth during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 28, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Sweeney says there’s an infinite number of commercial applications and ways in which the data can be used to refine a range of location-based services including merchandising offers, concession placement, localised advertising, live-streaming and interactive maps. The extent to which they are acted upon lies with the client. For this year’s event, he says Ryder Cup Europe is using the crowd dynamics data to plan concessions and give daily feedback to sponsors.

More specifically, it is using location data to target marketing messages more effectively for official Ryder Cup Europe sponsor BMW. When customers log onto the Wi-Fi in the BMW hospitality zone, they’ll be exclusively invited through a personalised email to register for a competition to win BMW prizes and this registration data will be shared with the sponsor.

“On top of that, we will be able to give them the analytics of what groups of people were moving around their hospitality tent, and how people use the space,” says Sweeney. “What times were peak times for them? How did it change over the three days? What were the approximate demographics?”

Such insights could be used by hospitality tent and concession operators to plan staffing at the current event and future tournaments. Longer-term, Sweeney says that granular footfall data will also allow the European Tour to plan sponsorship billboard placements around the course and charge more of a premium for areas which are proven to generate larger crowds.

The data could also be used to help concession operators to decide which product lines they should promote and display. Although Ryder Cup Europe isn’t taking full advantage of the ability to target merchandising more effectively, owing to a pre-existing merchandising facility through the official Turner-Sports-designed app, Sweeney paints an image of how the tournament organisers might use this capability.

“Say, for example, we have a group of American fans who gather during a rally by the American team, it would be easy enough for us to show up there 20 minutes before it rains with ‘Team America’ umbrellas.”

Ticketing

Equally, data analytics could be integrated with ticketing systems to push ticket promotions to fans – not a priority for a sell-out event like the Ryder Cup, but much more pertinent for other events on the European Tour.

“You can imagine if a fan shows up at Wentworth on a rainy Saturday and we know through their data they’ve only got a ticket for that day, and we know that no one’s going to show up on the door on the Sunday, it’s easy for us to integrate with most ticketing systems,” says Sweeney. “If a fan lasted the distance on a Saturday and happened to follow Rory McIlroy, let’s send them an email with a picture of Rory and ask them if they want to come back tomorrow at half-price, because we know the event’s going to be half-full anyway.”

Another application for the data is identifying bottlenecks on the course and crowd safety issues – one reason why a precise player tracking function has not been built into the fan experience for this year’s event. In spite of the fact that Le Golf National has been designed to accommodate high spectator numbers, and HPE’s tracking technology combined with live score data offers the chance to direct fans to the most exciting matches, the organisers have resisted telling fans where Tiger Woods is to the exact metre on the course.

“Operationally we will be tracking all the team buggies, all the facilities and all the entourage that follow them, just so we have a good picture in the control room, but let’s not go overboard and have 100,000 people walking down a single fairway at once on Sunday afternoon,” says Sweeney.

Fans of Europe during the morning fourball matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Paris, France. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Data protection

The new GDPR data regulations mean HPE has been equally mindful of the privacy of spectators on the course. The ability exists to harvest incredibly precise information about fans through the login function to the Wi-Fi, but crowd data will be anonymised at this year’s Ryder Cup for compliance reasons. Sweeney adds that HPE is more comfortable analysing fan behaviour at an aggregate level rather than a truly individual level.

“It’s available to us, but then it’s a matter of policy and principle both from the Ryder Cup themselves, HPE and individual sponsors as to how far they want to take that.”

Content sharing

The trade-off for any loss of privacy for fans is that improved Wi-Fi and crowd data will allow the European Tour to offer a richer digital and live experience. Although it hadn’t been decided exactly what content will be available to fans on the course at the time of writing, Sweeney says geofencing would allow the organisers to show live streams, replays and highlights footage to spectators through the Turner Sports Ryder Cup app without breaching the terms of any media deals.

Perhaps the starkest indication of how the European Tour’s policy towards mobile phones has changed is the fact that the media and fans will be encouraged to share images and comment on the event on social media over the improved Wi-Fi network.

“One thing that’s really key is allowing individual fans to create that media buzz and interactivity and sponsor awareness, just by the ability to tweet a selfie or comment on Twitter in a way they wouldn’t have done before.”

Sweeney thinks the European Tour should be commended for the scale of its ambition and the size of the engineering achievement in providing a wireless network to the estimated cumulative audience of 270,000 people that will attend the event from Monday to Sunday.

“There’s a good chance we’re going to see records broken in terms of this being the biggest bring-your-own device network ever provided to sports fans,” he says. “That’s a statement of intent for the European Tour in terms of how seriously they’re taking the fan experience, how seriously they’re taking the rise of second screen demands – especially of younger fans – and quite how large the commercial opportunity is for changing the way we interact with sports events.”

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