In 2008, the PGA Tour will award $278m in prize money. And it’s up to Steve Evans, senior vice president of IS, and his team to deliver it.
“The objective of the organisation is to drive value and benefits to our members, who include the world’s top 125 golf professionals,” says Evans. “And the primary value we can drive is prize money.”
Evans’s technology unit plays a key role by making the game appealing to fans and corporate sponsors. “We put a lot of energy into technology that focuses on enhancing the fan experience across all mediums,” he says.
The name of the game is data – collecting it, distributing it and analysing it – with systems and processes designed to support the Tour’s unusual business model. The Tour and its IT operation may be one of a kind, but IT’s role is familiar. Evans must deliver accurate and timely business intelligence both to support the players and keep customers – millions of golf fans – engaged with the competition.
Desire for the Tour’s data – specifically player statistics – has dramatically increased during the last decade or so. To keep up with the yearning from fans and players for more data and analysis on every shot of every tournament (and there are typically 32,000 shots per four-day event), Evans and his IT crew have spent lots of time and money on technological improvements that satisfy the growing demands of each constituency.
The Tour has a unique business model, says Evans. First, the PGA Tour is a tax-exempt member organisation that wields a powerful, global brand. Second, the location of the business moves weekly from one venue to the next. Third, its operations are subject to the whim of the weather gods. What’s more, the success of its main product, sports entertainment, is controlled not primarily by Tour employees but by the professional golfers, whom the Tour considers independent contractors. Finally, its core workforce isn’t the 2000 Tour employees but tens of thousands of unpaid tournament volunteers.
Each year, the players, along with Tour staff, including 15 or so mobile IT workers, criss-cross the US, where the golfers compete on the finest courses under gruelling and pressure-packed conditions with millions of dollars in prize money at stake. A typical purse for a Tour event is $5.3m (£2.8bn), with the winner getting anywhere from $700,000 (£368,000) to more than $1m (£530,000).
Since the Tour serves its members, executives at the Tour’s headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, need to ensure that golf fans’ and corporate sponsors’ interests are aligned with each other as well as with the competing players. Broadcast ratings, attendance at PGA Tour tournaments, merchandise sales and internet viewership on PGATour.com are critical to raising the money that pays for the player benefits and for the charitable donations made in each of the local markets.
The linchpin in the PGA Tour’s business strategy is the revolutionary ShotLink system, which debuted in 2001. ShotLink tracks every shot at every event: where a player’s golf ball starts and lands, and all the ground covered in between. ShotLink data generates more than 500 statistics as well as predictive analysis on golfers’ games. “Our mission is to capture attributes for every shot, for every player in real time,” Evans says.
In turn, the ShotLink data feeds PGATour.com, TV broadcasters and other media outlets, as well as the 11 high-resolution LED scoreboards that are strategically placed on the courses each week. The mobile scoreboards were introduced in 2007, and the players gave “a lot of constructive criticism” on what content they wanted to see, Evans says.
In essence, ShotLink data becomes critical business intelligence for the Tour players. “They rely fairly heavily on it,” Evans says. For example, on Fridays, players need to know where the ‘cut line’ is the score that divides the field into those who will continue playing on the weekend and those who won’t. (Players with a score worse than the cut line aren’t allowed to play on Saturday and Sunday). Once the weekend rolls around, and tensions rise on Sunday afternoon, the data on the scoreboards becomes absolutely vital.
“They evaluate that [scoreboard information] as part of their decision-making processes,” Evans says, “and what they see determines the risk on their shots.”
With millions of dollars at stake, the accuracy of the ShotLink data is paramount. Here’s where the volunteer staff comes in, and where Evans has a dual challenge. He has to develop and manage a sophisticated data collection system while ensuring that it’s easy for volunteers to learn and use.
At each tournament, approximately 350 of the 1000 volunteers on site work in one of two assignments gathering the data to feed the ShotLink system. One role is called the ‘walking scorer’. Each group of Tour golfers has a walking scorer, who records in a PDA the attributes of each player’s every stroke.
The other role is the laser operator. Two teams of two volunteers each are strategically positioned on each of the course’s 18 holes (one group monitors the fairway, the other, the green) and, using a laser surveying device, locate each golf ball after it’s been played and note the coordinates of its exact location on a digital grid.
Errors happen, especially with some 32,000 shots occurring during a typical four-day tournament, Evans notes. But in his view, it’s better to have the data flowing as fast as possible. “There’s no way we’re going to critique every single stroke before we send it to people who use the data,” he says. “We’ll show you all of our flaws and errors, and we’ll pride ourselves on the timeliness to fix that information.”
Because accuracy and timeliness of the data are so critical to players, broadcasters and fans, Evans and his team have built a couple of features into the ShotLink system that allow for quick error resolution. If, for example, the walking scorer says a player’s golf ball landed in the fairway but the result of a laser operator’s survey shows that the ball was actually in the rough, an on-site ShotLink producer will receive a warning message from the system.
A call on a voice radio from the ShotLink producer to either of the volunteers can clear up any discrepancy quickly. “Our goal is to have any data corrections made inside of one minute,” Evans says, “and we consistently meet that metric.” Four times a year, the Tour hires professional surveyors to assess the quality and accuracy of ShotLink’s measuring abilities. When the team compares ShotLink’s accuracy of locating a ball in the fairway with the professional surveyor’s data, ShotLink averages about 27 inches of deviation, Evans reports, meaning ShotLink is within 27 inches of being exactly right on a fairway that could be up to 500 yards long. At the green, the average deviation is two inches.
“We spend a lot of staff time at the site focused on critiquing the accuracy, identifying any process or operational issues and making sure we’re constantly evolving and improving,” says Evans.
Evans notes that Tour players use the ShotLink data at “varying levels”. For example, some players break down the numbers with their instructors to find areas for improvement. Evans’s team will create custom queries of the ShotLink data for players who request it. “We provide all the data to players,” Evans says, “and we give them full access to the inquiry system.”
Last year, Tour veteran Fred Funk told USA Today, “The neatest thing about it is looking at how guys play, how close they’re hitting their wedges, how close they’re hitting their three-irons, how far they’re driving it and how certain holes are playing.”
But without the volunteers’ efforts, Evans isn’t so sure there’d be a ShotLink. “I doubt that we would be able to build that business case,” he says, if the Tour had to pay people to do the measuring.
The popularity of, and reliance on, ShotLink data has made retaining the 10,000 volunteers who use the ShotLink devices each year a priority for Evans and his IT staff, who don’t have time to train a new set of volunteers each year. “When we built the system we recognised we had limited time to train, and it was important that we had high retention,” he says. “We also needed to build a culture around the mystique and value of these positions.”
Today, Evans reports that the Tour is able to retain more than 80 per cent of its volunteers on a year-on-year basis.
Neither could the PGA Tour exist without its sponsors. ESPN.com pegged the cost of sponsoring a regular PGA Tour event at $7m (£3.7m) a year.
Evans’ IT shop is also a part of this sponsorship model. The Tour recently replaced IBM with CDW as its “technology partner”. Evans says that CDW provides both sponsorship money as well as technology help for his staff. “We’re stretched thin, and we need good decision-making to help us to reduce the research cycles on topics such as software licensing and enhancing new ShotLink functions,” says Evans.
The Tour’s centralised IT group is made up of nearly 50 staffers. In addition, a 15-member mobile operations group travels to the Tour’s weekly tournaments to provide network administration, scoring operations and troubleshooting help on-site. Evans reports that IT expenses, compared to total revenue estimated at more than $300m, is slightly under one per cent.
Evans is a golfer himself, a very respectable 10-handicapper, but admits: “I’m surrounded by a group of people who are significantly better at the game than I am.” Nevertheless, Evans says, “I actually enjoy golf much more now than when I first came to work here.” That was 21 years ago, when Evans signed on as a programmer/analyst working on the Tour’s statistical, competition and player prize systems.
Evans is able to attend Tour events four to six times a year, depending on the IT projects on tap. “You can sit in conference rooms and talk about how things should work,” he says, “but the reality check is actually going on-site and watching the reality of how the operation works.”