Fans capture Tiger Woods at the 2018 Tour Championship on their mobile devices. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Eight years ago, the PGA Tour still banned the use of cell phones at tournaments. Now, with phone use fully legal, it is beginning to embrace mobile sports betting. Non-fans might now be brought into the game by the promise of winning real money. And fans out on the Tour’s courses in states where gambling on sports has been legalized are even able to place in-game bets on the action in front of them.
“We view gaming in general as an opportunity for fan engagement … for us to expand our audience to people who aren’t currently engaging in our sport is tremendous,” explains Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s SVP of tournament administration.
Levinson believes that golf is perfect for in-play betting because there can be as many as 72 balls in play at any moment whereas most other sports have just one. Each of those balls is already tracked using lasers and radars via the Tour’s ShotLink system, and metrics collected from every shot are set to power a growth into the global betting market.
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In November, the PGA Tour announced a multiyear deal to give IMG the exclusive right to distribute PGA Tour’s real-time ShotLink data system to international sports betting operators. That deal expanded last week to include North American betting operators. IMG will begin distributing the data to foreign markets in 2020, with U.S. sports betting operators close behind.
One of those operators could be DraftKings. The betting provider signed a deal in July to become the official fantasy game of the PGA Tour, and although that partnership only covers fantasy, DraftKings is now far more than a fantasy sports business.
According to Ezra Kucharz, chief business officer at DraftKings, both fantasy and betting can create “a much more immersive experience for people that are already into golf. But it also brings in casual fans. People that before something like this were only paying attention to golf four or five weekends per year around the Majors and maybe the Ryder Cup. This creates an enhanced experience so that other weekends of the year, they’re going to want to be immersed in the PGA Tour.”
And both DraftKings and major rival FanDuel have been leading the mobile expansion of betting in the U.S. DraftKings launched its mobile service in New Jersey in August 2018, with FanDuel following a month later. In July, more than $210 million was wagered online in New Jersey, the bulk of that being via FanDuel.
“In New Jersey, nearly 80 percent of all witnessed sports bets are mobile. If you look at the more sophisticated sports betting market in the U.K. for example, that number is north of 90 percent,” Levinson says. “That’s something that we would really like to see. And then one day when people are attending PGA tour events, then they can place wagers on their mobile devices.”
The PGA Tour’s current mobile policy states fans must keep their devices on silent at all times, and may not use camera flashes. Additionally, mobile devices are only permitted for capturing photos and video for personal use, such as social media sharing. But by welcoming smartphones onto its course, the organization might now be giving attendees a gambling edge. Knowing the result of a shot fractionally before the data feed disseminates it to the rest of the world could allow fans to quickly place bets on guaranteed results.
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More worryingly for the Tour itself, though, could be the prospect of fan-powered data streams competing with its own official, paid-for one. The mobile device policy states that fans “may not distribute such content on a live or near-live basis (no live streaming) or use such content to create a real-time, stoke-by-stroke or hole-by-hole account of a Tournament.”
Transmitting data from live sporting events to betting operators is known as “courtsiding.” In August, the English Football League apologized to a Hull City fan who was asked to stop texting or face ejection from a game because stadium security mistakenly believed he was doing exactly this to manipulate betting markets.
Kucharz believes the risk to golf of courtsiding is low. “There is a super fast data feed provided by the PGA Tour. The Tour’s scoring system is the scoring system of record. Location verification is done by the Tour and its scoring officials on the course.”
And besides, “courtsiding in golf isn’t really an issue because there’s 18 very large holes and you would have to field an army of people out on a course.”
But while courtsiding is not necessarily illegal under U.S. law, the PGA Tour has trained its tournament security to look out for anyone attempting this. According to Levinson, it has even caught several perpetrators over the past couple of years.
“They’re not standing [on the course] with their phones out videoing, more frequently they’ve got Air Pods in their ears and they’re calling play by play,” he says. “We have consulted with other sports who have had this problem for quite some time, particularly in international markets. But also because golf is different, you’re not scanning a fixed set of stands, you have people spread out over 100 acres, so we had a little bit of on the job experience in how to identify these people. Ultimately our security team found it fairly easy to spot them but that was probably because they didn’t know we were looking.”
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