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The Open's once 'draconian' mobile ban now ousted by hunger for livestreaming and data


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

July 24, 2018 | 7 min read

Last weekend, the best golfers in the world touched down in Scotland to try their hand at winning the 147th Open at Carnoustie, one of the oldest and most prestigious tournaments in the game. While the heritage of the tournament is indisputable, organiser R&A has redesigned itself in order to compete in an era of streaming, mobile and data-rich sports.

To modernise its offering, the R&A leans on NTT Data to introduce streaming and data solutions to enrich the fan experience on site, on mobile and for those at home. While this is a common aim in the world of sports, what is unique is the strategy's contrast with recent policy at the tournament; until 2012, The Open had a complete ban on mobiles on the course owing to the disruption caused by free-fire photography.

Italian golfer Francesco Molinari picked up the Claret Jug on 22 July, but the crowds swarmed around a resurgent Tiger Woods. Much of the rest of the field may have been largely out of sight, but they were not out of mind. The Open encouraged super fans to follow the action on social media or engage with its coverage through its app or website.

The Open was not once so forward-thinking. Mike Tate, executive director of R&A, told The Drum: “If you go back not very far, we had a ban on mobile phones. At the top of the backswing there were clicks and players were being put off. So we took a fairly draconian decision to ban them. In this day and age, we have reassessed ourselves that's not sustainable.”

Now mobile has been embraced as a means of enriching the fan experience. “Fans are the lifeblood of the tournament. Without fans, we have no tournament. So anything that we can do to help them in real time - more information, more enjoyment or more satisfaction with the product we are trying to sell - has got to be good.”

With tickets sitting just shy of £100, this helps provide more value for the admission fee.

Tate noted that the NTT Data Wall, now in its fifth year, has become a vital feature of the tournament. “People go there, they sit there and they have their lunch. If they are not watching live play, they are on the app.”

From a broadcast perspective, The Open has to ramp up from no viewers to millions across the world every year. It has to generate buzz and work around Carnoustie's rural setting, to provide suitable infrastructure on site.

Tate said: "We've got four days out of 365 days in a year to tell our story. As soon as you switch on you have no testing time, our viewership goes from zero and spikes to millions all around the world. You've got to work with partners robust systems that work. You don't get a second chance, if you miss a day, you get only get 75%.”

He concluded: "With the likes of Wimbledon you get 13 days to build up to a final.”

The Open Patron NTT Data has been helping the modernization of the tournament since 2014. The Japanese firm (NTT is also known as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone) has put down roots in the UK with NTT Data UK, as part of a push to aid digitisation efforts and pursue potential C-suite clients at the tournament.


Simon Williams, chief executive of NTT Data UK, said: “The digital of yesterday can be defined as apps, websites and kiosks. The digital of today is more about the organization bringing digital into the business, becoming a digital business.”

He noted that golf is a sport rich in data which can be used to enrich the fan experience. “With golf you've got 70 people playing at the same time - you can't watch it all - whereas even if you're watching a tennis match there are only two people playing. We’ve made it a data rich environment with the Data Wall, the app, and augmented reality.”

The app and The Open livestreams are intended to be used by people at home, as well as those attending the tournament. Meanwhile, all the data is being input in real time by staff in the ground as soon as it happens.

“It is extending The Open experience. You've got the live experience of watching a shot on 12, but you might want to watch the shots taken by the following person on your mobile while you are there. It is a longer, wider, bigger, better experience for the same money they get they get more.“

Another piece of tech being shown off at the tournament is the group’s sentiment analysis. Atop the Data Wall were three cameras directed at viewers.

These were tracking the facial expressions and noise of the crowd, and on top of social media sentiment. When combined, this helped create a map of the most exciting moments of the tournament. This helps brand hone in on what stories to tell, which highlights to cut and more. It also has clear business uses too.

Edoardo Tealdi, head of digital, UK, Ireland and Netherlands at NTT Data UK, said: “If you put the three data streams together, you can create the entire story of The Open. It's another level of personalisation. This is about making complicated things simple and beautiful to experience. You have to have good data quality and you need to make it simple. It's about visualisation.”

The Data Wall has grown in size every year since its debut at the Royal Liverpool tournament. This year it integrated live footage and livestreaming in a bid to make coverage even more dynamic. Next year, with The Open due to visit Royal Portrush in 2019, the Data Wall is likely to be upgraded further. The team is also experimenting with AR as a means of visualising each shot.

With attention on one of golf's biggest stages growing with each passing year, viewers should expect NTT to go even deeper with its data execution.

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