How the 2019 U.S. Open Hit the Fan Experience Sweet Spot
The historic backdrop of Pebble Beach provides a glimpse at the future of mobile sports experiences with real-time player tracking, augmented reality and more!
At From Now On, anytime one of our employees attends a sporting event, we like to refer to it as “field research.” Though we spend each day talking to schools and events around the country about fan experience, there is no replacement for getting out of the office and taking in that experience firsthand. So, when a few friends planned a trip to the 2019 U.S.Open at Pebble Beach for the 100th anniversary of that iconic golf course, I knew I HAD to make the pilgrimage for a “research” trip.
Now, although I’ve been to many events throughout major professional and college sports, arriving at Pebble Beach and seeing what amounted to a small city’s worth of infrastructure built around the course quickly made it clear that the U.S. Open is an Event like few others. As I stepped off of the shuttle and began following the walkway in, I saw banners featuring past U.S. Open winners and heard audio clips from iconic shots in Pebble Beach’s storied past playing from hidden speakers. Looking around, I began to notice the dozens of people stopping to take photos - of the ocean in the distance, of signage, of their companions.
This was just the first of many Moments that the fan experience at the 2019 U.S. Open facilitated by providing opportunities to pause to remember the past, savor the present or look ahead to the future. And many of these moments were in close alignment with the technology supporting the on-site event for fans.
Memorable experiences driven by mobile touchpoints
For me, this year’s fan experience at Pebble Beach really began and ended with mobile. From buying tickets to booking flights and coordinating lodging with friends… from navigating the course to documenting the experience, my smartphone was pretty much the only tool I needed to succeed.
The U.S. Open App
The central component of the mobile fan experience was the US Open app. In pre-tournament hours, the app was key for things like parking information, tee times, highlights, updates and live coverage (which proved especially valuable as my companions and I drove down the California coast without access to a radio broadcast!).
Augmented Reality (AR) at the U.S. Open
And then there was the U.S. Open AR App, a standalone mobile experience created in partnership by Deloitte and the USGA for the event. The U.S. Open AR App - triggered from specific on-course maps - gave fans the opportunity to track live shots, see results of shots from their favorite players, and relive famous shots from past champions at Pebble Beach on iconic holes like the Par 3 7th hole, or the approach on the 18th.
Sizzle features that boosted engagement for home viewers
While the app was useful for key fan information and staying up-to-date on tournament happenings while traveling, it also included engaging features for fans who couldn’t be on site. One AR feature provided a particularly fun diversion.
The U.S. Open Virtual Photo Booth provided the option to either take a selfie with an iconic Pebble Beach background, or to place a virtual U.S. Open Trophy on any surface, and snap a social media ready pic to share. In addition to the Virtual Photo Booth, the app also provided key notifications throughout the day to any fan with the app, including a timely “3 Things to Know for Today” notification. Very cool.
Good old fashioned photo opportunities on site
The U.S. Open also did a creative and intentional job of creating photo opportunities along the course. One of the first I encountered was a giant “Happy Father’s Day” photo-frame, with a view of the 18th hole and iconic lone cypress tree in the background. Other notable photo ops included giant 119th U.S. Open letters, giant adirondack chairs, and a huge logo wall where fans could sign their names, to name a few.
Best practices for any level of spectator sporting event
While not all events will have the scale of a U.S. Open, any event in sports can follow some of the same principles to create memorable fan experiences. So as I left the course for the day, after visiting a vast 36,000 square foot merchandise “tent” (where I waited in line for the first time all day) and reflected on the experience, a thought crossed my mind: the U.S. Open was by no means a perfect event (just ask my wallet), but it sure felt like one. Why?
Based on what I saw in Pebble Beach, here is my list of best practices for facilitating moments at a sporting event.
Three Keys to Hitting the Fan Experience Sweet Spot
Factor in convenience, above all else.
Nearly any fan will tell you that long lines that take you away from the action can quickly discolor the experience. In this regard, the U.S. Open excelled thanks to a fantastic course layout featuring near-ubiquitous concessions and restrooms. Free WiFi and powerful wayfinding on the mobile app (plus great course signage) also helped a lot. I was particularly impressed by the large grab-and-go concessions tents, each staffed with nearly a dozen checkout kiosks.
If you do one “Big Thing,” do it well.
Augmented Reality was easily the technology highlight of the event. What I found most impressive was not only the depth of the features for fans both on-site and at home, but also how well the features were promoted. The combination of the signage, push notification reminders and free Wifi was key to making me actually want to use the AR features. So while the technology was certainly impressive, the USGA’s execution of a promotional plan was the key to getting adoption.
Grab fan attention with little flourishes.
While the AR feature was impressive and well-executed, it wasn’t a feature I used often or necessarily found myself thinking about the next day. What grabbed my attention? Stumbling upon the Father’s Day photo frame on the 18th hole, complete with a volunteer taking photos for people. Another attention grabber was the well-mannered push notification flow - always just at the right time. It’s almost like the person sending those notifications had consulted some fascinating industry best practice resources! From the charging stations in fan services tents to the general friendliness of the volunteer staff, these were the little things that added the thoughtful touch that colored my experience even days after the event.
At the end of the day, yes, the 2019 U.S. Open was about the backdrop of a historic course and a new generation of players rising to create new iconic memories for fans. That’s the drama of sport that fuels our passion. But as more leagues continue to face attendance issues organizers at all levels of the game are looking beyond the field for any opportunity to set the live fan event experience apart.
But the event also proved to be a technology showcase that may have created a blueprint for other events and venues on how to gracefully integrate tech into the fan experience, without distracting from the main event. As someone with a passion for golf, the U.S. Open was already a bucket-list event. Now that I’ve been there, and seeing as though I’m in the business of creating gameday experiences, this major event exceeded my expectations - you might even say they aced it.
Reilly McClure @reillymcclure is marketing lead and senior customer success coach at From Now On