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In a recent appearance on the Golf Channel, senior vice president of tournament administration Andy Levinson said tracking technology could create new in-game betting markets for the sport.
Golf does provide a rich set of data, which makes the sport engaging for viewers and number-crunching bettors alike. There’s a caveat, though. “The only way to really have active in-play betting,” Levinson said, “particularly with our sport, is to use official league data.”
The PGA recently joined other professional leagues in a lobbying effort focused on shaping sports betting bills around the country. One of their cornerstone arguments is that mandating the use of official league data will create a better product for bettors. It’s an argument the tour has made at a site called US Sports Integrity, as well.
The sticking point for operators is that they’d have to license that data from the leagues on their terms.
Levinson’s appearance came in the lead-up to The Players Championship, one of golf’s most prestigious events. Sports betting was the sole focus of the five-minute chat, with Golf Central host Ryan Burr setting up the pins.
During his opening summary, Levinson perfectly echoed the words of his colleagues in other leagues. “If the Supreme Court decides to allow sports betting either at the federal level or the state level,” he said, “then we want to make sure that any regulation that is enacted includes protections for the integrity of the competition…”
There is an unwritten rule that the word “integrity” must appear in every other sentence during these sorts of conversations. Concerns over integrity are the root of the leagues’ arguments, after all.
Interestingly, though, Levinson did not once mention the integrity fee, which would require operators to pay leagues a percentage of all money wagered. The fee did make an appearance on screen, displayed as part of what Burr called the “five-point plan.”
The PGA Tour’s focus is on data, though.
Golf really is at the cutting edge of sports data and technology. The PGA’s proprietary ShotLink system is a software-based tracker that measures the location of a golf ball anywhere on the course. It does so with remarkable precision.
Here’s how ShotLink’s website describes it:
Each golf course is mapped prior to the event so a digital image of each hole is used as background information in order to calculate exact locations and distances between any two coordinates (e.g. tee box and the player’s first shot or the shot location and the location of the hole).
Golf is a bit unique in that tracking a golf ball so precisely requires a hardware solution, too. ShotLink uses what’s called a TrackMan, a small radar panel that captures the flight path of the ball. It’s a wonderful tool for fan engagement, generating those fancy yellow trails you see overlaid on broadcasts.
ShotLink is also an incredible tool for bettors, providing raw data for analysis at the most granular level. If you want to know how often a particular player saves par from a fairway bunker, ShotLink can tell you the answer.
As part of their proposed state legislation, leagues have asked for the ability to restrict certain types of in-game wagers. For golf, Levinson cited concern over “bets with a negative outcome,” such as whether a player will miss their next putt. These bets, leagues argue, are the most susceptible to manipulation.
Levinson says the PGA Tour welcomes in-game betting, but sportsbooks would have to pay for the data. “If we get to the point where we decide to license that data for the purposes of sports betting,” he said, “you can imagine all kinds of different markets that are going to be created. You can go hole-by-hole or shot-by-shot.”
How much it would cost a sportsbook to license that data would be at the PGA Tour’s discretion.
Although ShotLink is a great tool for bettors, it’s not necessarily an asset to in-play betting. A player’s score is something that can be determined publicly, tracked manually, or gleaned from mainstream data feeds. Folks aren’t really looking to bet on Tiger Woods’ driving distance down to the nearest inch. Put another way, sportsbooks don’t need ShotLink data to offer live wagers. The only way they would pay a licensing fee is if lawmakers required them to do so, or if that data coincided with bets they couldn’t take without it.
Incidentally, the PGA Tour and other governing bodies also want to restrict betting to their top-level leagues and tours. “We’d also like to have the ability to opt out of the minor leagues,” Levinson said. “Where we’ve seen corruption in other sports, it’s usually taken place at those lower levels.”
Also noteworthy: The PGA Tour has previously won a high-level court case related to restricting its real-time scoring data. Its two lobbying partners, the NBA and Major League Baseball, have each lost similar cases.