It didn’t take long for world class golf pros Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to support the concept and technology behind TMRW Sports’ TGL.
The two longtime golfers, sports industry pioneers and ambassadors have long been advocates for how technology can make golf more accessible and exciting.
So, when Founder and CEO Mike McCarley pitched them an idea of a technology-infused golf league that marries a data-rich, virtual course with a broadcast component that sends golf into prime time they were immediately on board.
“They both understood it and understood the opportunity from the very first time they heard about it,” Joey Brander, a member of the founding team and its Vice President, Corporate Development, said at a technology conference in Orlando last week. “Both of them were on board from Day 1.”
Brander took the stage at Orlando’s MetaCenter Global Week alongside TMRW Sports’ Chief Technology Officer Andrew Macaulay to dive deep into TGL’s upcoming launch.
In a chat with Jason Siegel of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, Brander and Macaulay shared the latest.
TMRW SPORTS: A NEW TYPE OF LEAGUE
TGL presented by SoFi will be played in a new, technology-laden sports venue, SoFi Center, on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
The facility’s tech stage has the potential to permanently shift the landscape of in-person sporting events.
TGL’s giant screen powered by Full Swing technology measuring 64 feet high by 46 feet across, roughly 20 times the size of a standard simulator screen. Players will hit from real grass tee boxes at both tee box/fairway, rough length, as well as real sand. And the venue’s revolutionary short game area is where technology takes a leap forward.
The area will be equipped with about 700 hydraulic jacks that allows the venue to simulate undulations on putting greens.
Computer controlled software allows venue operators to customize it exactly as they want it.
Then, as competitors in the venue complete a hole and move on to the next, actuators fire up to simulate the next green.
“It’s phenomenal,” Macaulay said. “We have been researching and developing for six to seven months with our synthetics. We have also come up with a proprietary layering technique.”
The league will consist of six teams of four PGA Tour players each competing in a 15-week regular season that starts Jan. 9 on ESPN.
A two-week playoff will follow the regular season, with prize money handed out to the champions afterward.
Matches will be played within two hours.
Shortly after the league concept materialized, McCarley took it to Woods, who also invests in Full Swing, the creator of the golf simulator the league will revolve around.
Woods has been training on a Full Swing simulator for years, setting up specific scenarios on realistic virtual courses as he preps for professional tournaments.
“He understood the technology and also understood the issues with the technology, especially around the short game,” Brander said on stage.
The Full Swing simulator is a high-resolution, realistic swing simulator that allows golfers to hit a real golf ball into a screen, which then picks up the ball’s trajectory, spin and other traits, sending it into an animated, 3D environment.
A massive area of play that includes actuators, bunkers, greens, different flag locations and other features golfers face during the course of a round will supplement that screen at the physical venue.
The goal is to maintain the integrity of all shots, including chips, putts and drives, in the simulator.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE FROM AN OLD FAMILY TRADITION
When Tiger Woods was growing up in Southern California, he and his father would regularly attend football games.
More often than not, his attention would turn to the sidelines, where he could watch interactions between coaches and players.
You could see players celebrating, giving high fives, meeting with trainers or, in today’s game, studying an iPad to see what went wrong on the last drive.
That’s not possible in golf, necessarily.
In-person spectators pick a player to follow along on a course or they pick a position on the course to watch from. On television, it’s even more limited, with others choosing the viewing options.
With each of those options, fans miss out on a lot of what is happening on other parts of the course, often relying on loud cheers and replays to determine where some great shot was just made.
Brander shared Woods’ story on stage to illustrate one of TGL’s advantages.
“In our matches, every single shot is going to be right there in front of you,” he said. “The players will be miked up. You’ll hear every piece of conversation and every piece of dialogue.”
That’s the power of marrying emerging technology with what has become one of the more exciting aspects of sports, which is real-time information and interaction with athletes.
For Rory McIlroy, TMRW Sports represents the latest in a growing line of investments.
The 34-year-old has primarily backed healthcare-related businesses. However, he has also supported Puttery, a series of immersive miniature golf venues that includes upscale food and other activities.
In addition, both McIlroy and Woods have long been advocates of making golf more accessible.
“If I told you there was a startup basketball league, co-founded by Lebron and Steph, with support of the NBA and with most of the all-star teams involved, that’s a catalyst for growth,” Brander said. “We couldn’t have asked for better partners from Day 1 than Tiger and Rory and their whole teams around them.”
ELECTRIC ATMOSPHERE MEETS WORLD CLASS GOLF
The atmosphere, itself, will bring its own character to the broadcast side of the event.
The idea is to bring innovative ideas together with all that has been good with broadcast sports and pack it up tightly into a great package. Players will walk from their locker rooms out of tunnels to the mainstage amidst a pyrotechnical light show. Warmups will be equivalent to an NBA pregame shootaround.
Meanwhile, fans can get warmed up on an outdoor plaza that will become its own sideshow before the show.
However, that part will be broken up before tee time.
“The fans are there to watch the show but they are also a part of the show,” Macaulay said. “They are there to create atmosphere for the television audience and the players.”
Macauley alluded to the old television show, “Let’s Make a Deal,” where audience members dressed up in wacky costumes for attention.
“Instead of going crazy for people they don’t know dressed in silly costumes, they are, instead, watching McIlroy and Woods warming up,” he said.
TECHNOLOGY IS ALL ABOUT TIMING
The timing of the sports technology likely could not be better.
As technology has evolved, sports has been one of the more active industries to take advantage of it.
The evolution of sports presentation and consumption has come a long way since 1998, when the NFL debuted the yellow first-down marker on screens.
At the time, the simple overlay was a hit as viewers started to consider new ways of watching their favorite teams.
Soon thereafter, all sports found ways to manipulate display screens, keeping fans engaged as the game or match played out.
In golf, that meant commercial simulators, yards-to-hole data and other technology.
“The last decade has been transformational” when it comes to technology, Macaulay said. “Simulators have been around for 20-25 years now.”
CENTRAL FLORIDA: TALENT AND GOLF DEPTH
About eight miles away from the panel discussion, TMRW Sports headquarters sits nestled in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park.
“The Winter Park area has a lot of resources here and a lot of startups,” Macaulay said. “We need to be able to have oxygen and build, right?”
The community is home to Rollins College, one of several schools in the area that consistently produce some of the best tech talent in several industries.
The others include Full Sail University, a slew of community college campuses and University of Central Florida, which jostles with Arizona State University every year as the largest student body in the U.S.
“We have hired quality people in this area and not too far outside of our economic circle,” Macaulay said. “It’s a good indication of the community that has been burgeoning here.”
Beyond the talent pool, Central Florida also has a deep golf ecosystem, with hundreds of golf courses located near the home of tourist destination Walt Disney World.
In addition, Golf Channel called the city home for decades up until 2020.
Arnold Palmer took ownership of the bucket-list staple Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando in the 1970s, as well.
“Our headquarters being here in the Orlando area was incredibly important,” Brander said. “A number of the folks we brought on board worked with Mike at The Golf Channel or had worked with other businesses in the Orlando area, which is a hotbed for the sport.”
The actual venue will be located in Palm Beach, less than 3 hours away from Winter Park.
About 70 percent of PGA Tour golfers have homes or stay in that region on a regular basis, Macaulay said.
“This has to be convenient for them,” he said. “The whole strategy to begin with is to get the greatest players in the world that no other startup league is able to get so it had to dovetail perfectly with their other lives. It’s easy for them to come to this.”
AN IDEA YEARS IN THE MAKING
The whole idea came from a relationship forged many years ago.
Brander had been working in venture capital and startups when he was put in touch with McCarley, a longtime U.S. media executive.
He had been working on TMRW Sports on napkins and iPads at the time, looking for a way to pull it off.
McCarley had been one of the pioneers of sports broadcasting, famously helping build Golf Channel into one of the more innovative broadcast channels in sports.
“There have been a lot of startup sports leagues over the past decade which have not succeeded,” Brander said. “The reason is it’s really hard to bring the talent that matters and that people will watch.”
That’s why bringing in Woods and McIlroy early has been crucial.
STARPOWER BEYOND GOLF
Beyond these two, however, there is no lack of star power, both in participants and investors.
The two primary backers and others involved opened their virtual Rolodex to line up some of the more recognizable names in sports and entertainment.
Brander shared that he speaks with former NBA All-Star Andre Iguodala regularly about new ideas for the venue. He also recently received a 3-minute voicemail from DJ Khaled with ideas he had for the presentation side of the enterprise.
Overall, the league has more than 40 high-profile investors.
“They are passionate about what we are doing and they want to have a role in it,” he said.
A LEAGUE FOR THE FANS
At its base, TGL builds upon centuries-old fanaticism.
In the days of jousting knights, young boys would select their favorites and cheer them on as they sped toward high-speed collisions.
In more modern times, fans select team allegiance, often based upon their region and latch on to their players.
“Each person has a true passion for sports and everyone growing up as a kid had their favorite athlete or sports team or followed a league,” Brander said. “You have people living and dying by the successes and failures of your favorite team.”
Golf is a little bit different than team sports, however, for the most part.
Those who watch the PGA TOUR generally follow and root for individual players.
That’s the energy TMRW Sports plans to harness but in an entirely new way, placing those players on specific teams.
That’s just one of a number of innovations that will roll out with TGL.
“The ability for people to have a hand in building a league where kids all over the world can have those same reactions and memories because of something all of us have collectively built is a special opportunity,” Brander said. “The ability to change and innovate and reimagine the game of golf, leave a legacy on the sports industry, was something they couldn’t pass up.”
OPENING DAY BUTTERFLIES?
Macaulay admitted to a little bit of pressure when they fire up the simulators, actuators and undulating greens to a public audience for the first time in prime time on Jan. 9 on ESPN.
After all, they are simulating ball movement and results for some of the world’s most-precise golfers - who rarely miss.
“They know what shot they hit without looking,” he said. “It has to match what they hit.”
That’s why they set up a “secret lair” in Orlando, he said, to fine tune the simulators as much as they can before showtime.
Even as they prepare for the pageantry, Macaulay said outsiders still have no real idea what they are in store for.
The excitement of the crowd.
Holing out on any given hole within six minutes.
“It’s going to be a spectacle,” Macaulay said. “You have to imagine the excitement you have and the excitement of the crowd.”
On Jan. 9, imagination will no longer be necessary.
“Once people see the sheer size and scale of the area of play, the technology and how accurate we can replicate exactly what it’s like to play golf on 200 acres of land but condensed into this venue, people will be astonished,” Brander said. “Add in the crowd going crazy, it’s going to be pretty awesome.”