SBJ/May 6-12, 2013/Facilities

As golf tournaments grow more friendly toward cellphones, many installing Wi-Fi hot spots

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The PGA Tour took a huge step toward keeping its fans in touch when it permitted cellphones on the golf course starting in 2011. Now, some tournaments are going a step further by installing Wi-Fi hot spots around the course for the first time.

Sponsor Time Warner Cable installed two Wi-Fi hot spots at the 18th green, and a dozen others around the site, for the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
Time Warner Cable, a sponsor of last weekend’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, installed 14 Wi-Fi devices in spectator areas at the Quail Hollow Club. The hot spots — at the driving range, the clubhouse and 11 of the 18 holes mostly around grandstands near the green (the 18th hole had two) — made it easy for fans to use their phones, tablets and laptops, all of which are permitted on the course.

This week’s Players Championship will have Wi-Fi available on a more limited basis at popular gathering spots like The Grove, a highly trafficked eating area near the famous 17th hole. Each hospitality area also has its own private Wi-Fi.

“Each tournament has its own set of capabilities,” said Nathan Grube, tournament director at next month’s Travelers Championship in Connecticut. “But you’re definitely seeing Wi-Fi become more and more common across the tour.”

Across the board, some tournaments still have very limited Wi-Fi capability, mostly for media centers and clubhouses, while others are moving more aggressively in that direction. Wi-Fi typically enables the user faster download speeds, savings on mobile data plans, and the ability to use tablets and laptops, in addition to smartphones.

One of those leading the charge is the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which in February made the entire course at TPC Scottsdale a hot spot, a first on the PGA Tour. Cox Business, a tournament sponsor, created 156 access points across the course. The free Wi-Fi provides faster download speeds on the course and cuts through cellular congestion.

Often, the deployment of Wi-Fi is motivated by a tournament sponsor, such as Time Warner, Cox or AT&T. Tournaments are much more likely to have Wi-Fi if there’s a sponsor covering the cost of installation. Officials would not reveal what the cost is.

At the AT&T National at Congressional next month, Wi-Fi hot spots will be installed at hospitality areas, the media center, clubhouse and a few other public areas with high traffic for AT&T customers. A pass code is needed for noncustomers in hospitality and media center areas.

“We just don’t have the bandwidth to offer Wi-Fi to everyone on property,” said Greg McLaughlin, president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Corp., which runs the AT&T National and the Deutsche Bank Championship. “There are just too many smartphones floating around.”

AT&T also sets up “cells on wheels,” antenna towers mounted on trucks, to enhance cell coverage, which is common at many tournaments.

For Time Warner, the hot spots at the Wells Fargo Championship were part of the company’s TV Everywhere initiative. The cable and Internet distributor has been installing Wi-Fi networks in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Charlotte, Kansas City and Austin, Texas, as well as huge gathering spots, like shopping malls. Time Warner generally requires customers to authenticate with a password to access the free Wi-Fi, but hot spots at Quail Hollow didn’t require authentication.

Wi-Fi gives Time Warner subscribers the ability to access sports programming from ESPN, the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Networks and other channels with TV Everywhere capabilities.

“With the explosive growth of Wi-Fi-enabled devices, customers want to take their Time Warner experience outside of the home,” said Rich Ruggiero, vice president in Time Warner’s Charlotte office.

So spectators at the golf tournaments this month might also be watching a baseball game on a tablet while they’re sitting next to the 18th green.

Many tournaments also are producing their own mobile app in addition to the one offered by the tour. The tour’s app features live scoring, news and updates, all produced by the PGATour.com team, while the tournament apps are more specific to the event, with information on concessions, restrooms and ATMs.

For example, the Waste Management Phoenix Open’s first-year app, developed by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based AGN Sports, carried video of the caddie race on the raucous 16th hole.

“I don’t really know if there’s a big Wi-Fi demand for spectators or not, but most people now understand they have the ability to use their mobile device,” said Clair Peterson, director of the John Deere Classic in July. “It’s certainly something that we’re all watching.”

The PGA Championship is the only major that allows mobile devices on the course during competition rounds. It has not made any decisions on expanding Wi-Fi for spectators across the course.

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