2005: Tour tempts fans into its Web

By Mike Mazur

When the PGA Tour recently was nominated for a national television Emmy, odds are most people assumed it had earned the honor for a tournament broadcast.

Guess again.

The National Television Academy actually recognized the Tour for its work not on TV, but on the Web: TourCast, an interactive product the Tour designed to engage fans with the sport and its players in today’s online world.

A pay-for-access component of PGATour.com, TourCast can provide its users with graphic illustrations of every shot hit by every player in every PGA Tour event. Bundled as part of a subscriber-only package called Tour Pass, which also offers exclusive video and editorial content, TourCast can stand alone as an entertainment vehicle or serve as a tool with which fans can better enjoy tournament broadcasts, Tour officials say.

But for all the critical acclaim the Tour’s Web products have received – TourCast was nominated for its ability to “enhance original television content” – their commercial benefit remains unknown. Tour officials have spent a small fortune on these Web initiatives, but are mum about their profitability or subscription base.

However, new media experts say there’s much more to this picture than the bottom-line. They

say the Tour can rationalize its investment, because years from now TourCast and similar ventures likely will lead to a revolutionary entertainment medium: A vehicle that unites TV and the Web, or even replaces TV.

“Whether it’s on the computer, television or cell phone, at some point live video, live audio and live data will all come together,” says Paul Johnson, the Tour’s vice president of new media.

TourCast began as an exercise in data collection. In collaboration with IBM, Tour officials sought a way to record all the action that occurs at every tournament. The goal was to provide fans an opportunity to view, at their leisure, any aspect of tournament activity as opposed to the limited coverage provided by TV broadcasts.

Ultimately, the partnership developed ShotLink, which uses surveyors to map tournament courses and then relies on volunteers to follow Tour players and electronically plot their shots. Using both sets of data, the Tour creates a graphic illustration, depicting a hole layout and tracking the shots played on it.

Fans can use TourCast in a variety of ways, including in real-time to complement network broadcasts or to “play back” rounds of their favorite players. Access to TourCast is gained by purchasing Tour Pass (see box above).

Tour officials say subscriptions are increasing, but won’t release details. That doesn’t surprise new media experts, who say the Tour – as well as other professional sports leagues – are still learning and struggling to commercialize the Web.

“Everybody’s trying to find out how to make this technology make sense to their kinds of fans,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It might be a little harder for golf, which could be seen as skewing older than other sports.”

But he says that might work in the Tour’s favor. Without younger fans demanding Web products,

the Tour “can sit back a little and see what other properties are doing, and then take the best practices.”

To some degree, the Tour already might be copying some of its peers. TourCast, for example, bears resemblance to PitCommand, a feature of NASCAR’s pay-for-access TrackPass.

Like TourCast, PitCommand is a data product and allows NASCAR fans to monitor virtual dashboards of their favorite drivers and listen to their radio chatter. NASCAR also has recruited Valvoline to sponsor the oil pressure gauge in PitCommand.

Can the Tour be far behind?

“Down the road, (TourCast) may be able to (show) how a golf shot was played through a sponsored golf tip,” Swangard says.

The Tour is just as interested in using its new technology for other applications.

One possibility: An “entertainment hub” that converges TV and computers. Such interactivity could yield a video game that enables users to actually enter a virtual broadcast of a live tournament and compete against their favorite players. In the future, the Tour also could put cameras on every hole, which could lead to live tournament Webcasts when TV networks are off-air. Already, Major League Baseball is offering a comparable product; for a fee, fans can watch Webcasts of their favorite teams’ baseball games on MLB.TV.

Does it mean the Tour could one day launch its own network? Tour officials decline to comment,

but Larry DeGaris, director of James Madison University’s Center for Sports Sponsorship says it’s an option, either on cable or the Web.

Says DeGaris: “They have control over their events, don’t they?”

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