RealTime IT News

Wi-Fi on the Links

One does not normally associate lady golfers with cutting-edge technology -- although, as Annika Sorenstam has amply demonstrated, they are not what they used to be.

This week's Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tournament, the Sybase Big Apple Classic 2003, may change the image of women's golf even further. It is the first LPGA event to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots to bring tournament information to visitors and participants.

Sponsor Sybase , the data integration software developer, through its wireless iAnywhere Solutions Inc. subsidiary and in association with Intel , has set up two hotspots at the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y. -- one at the clubhouse and one at the 18th hole.

Anyone who attends the event and brings a Wi-Fi enabled device can use the service, free of charge, to surf the Web or access ISP or corporate e-mail.

The sponsors have also created a special AvantGo channel -- an interactive Web site designed for PDA users -- that will relay up-to-the-minute scores and money standings to visitors and participants on the course and at the Wykagyl clubhouse.

Software from AvantGo, now part of iAnywhere, allows developers to create PDA-friendly Web applications or channels. PDA owners can go to the AvantGo site and use their unit's synchronization utility to download the "Sybase Big Apple Classic To Go" channel, which includes static data such as course and hole descriptions.

During the event, they can open the channel in their PDA browser, click the Refresh button and instantly get up-to-the-minute scores over the Wi-Fi network or, if they're out of range, over Verizon Wireless's CDMA 1X high-speed mobile network. In fact, anyone anywhere can download and use the channel over any Internet connection.

The channel was originally created for about 60 New York-area Sybase clients and other VIPs who will be participating in a pre-tournament pro-am event. "We wanted our customers to see what AvantGo was all about," explains James Ryan, creative and editorial director at Avantgo.

If Sybase was primarily motivated by the marketing opportunity, the LPGA itself was more than willing to go along for its own reasons. Senior vice president and COO Chris Higgs believes it will one day be commonplace for LPGA fans to check their PDAs to get information about players they're watching at an event -- and maybe even watch video replays from other holes during breaks in action.

"Whether it happens today or five years from now," Higgs says, services like the one Sybase has set up here will help the LPGA attract more, and demographically more attractive, tech-savvy, fans to the game.

As with any sporting enterprise, a key marketing objective is to get fans to "bond" with players -- to become interested not just in the game, or the players' performance but in who the players are, where they come from, what they've done. By providing information to fans while they're at an event, it should be possible to hook them on the spot. If they have to wait until they get home to find background on the players they watched, it will be too late, Higgs says.

"Obviously it's a play for the future," he concedes. "But look at how many used the Web ten years ago to check scores -- zero. Now we get two or three million a week at our site. You have to take those initial steps with a new technology like this, you have to see the potential. I believe if we build it, they will come."

It seems unlikely many will come with Wi-Fi devices to this event, however. When we asked AvantGo's Ryan how many he thought might show up, he quips, "That maybe depends on how many read [the 802.11 Planet] Web site."

"This is really kind of a pioneering venture," Ryan adds. "Maybe this first year, not many will come, but maybe next year more will have PDAs. We don't know yet what the overlap is between golf fans and the kind of tech-savvy people who carry PDAs."

Sybase won't say how much it is costing to provide the service at the Big Apple tournament -- or would cost the LPGA if it were paying. Intel is deploying standard Cisco Aironet 1200 series wireless access points, which organizers expect will provide coverage over an area of 300 metres outside.

The cost of developing an AvantGo channel varies widely, Ryan says. In this case, Sybase really created two: a more robust channel with more information for the 60 VIPs who will be issued with HP iPaq Pocket PCs preloaded with the channel, and a second "lite" version for the public, without some of the static information, including detailed player data.

"Most people with these units are still concerned about download speeds and using up too much memory," Ryan notes.

There is also the cost of incorporating a real-time XML feed of the scores.

As enthusiastic as the LPGA is about the service, Higgs doesn't see the tour organization paying for development of a content delivery system in the future. It would likely find a partner to do that -- its contribution being the proprietary information.

Would the LPGA be willing to underwrite the costs of the wireless infrastructure for event sites?

"I don't have enough information yet to answer that question," Higgs says. "This is a pioneering effort -- as it was when we made the decision to invest so heavily in the Internet. In time, we might make the same decision about this. I do believe in the future of it, though, absolutely."

There is nothing new, of course, about event-based or professional sports-related Wi-Fi hotspot initiatives. It's a fertile field, as more than a few vendors have discovered. Other recent initiatives in fact have been more ambitious and more broadly focused than this one.

What's interesting is how much is expected of Wi-Fi beyond simple broadband connectivity -- that it will somehow lend an aura of newness and sophistication to an event. Will women's golf be revolutionized by Wi-Fi? Doubtful. Still, it will be interesting to see if Sybase and the LPGA bring it back next year.