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Data: Changing the Game of Soccer

Chase McCaskill

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Photo via R. A. Di Ieso (Vocativ)


In July 2013, Perform Group, a leading global digital sports content and media group, acquired the sports data company Opta. The acquisition signaled the increasing importance of sports data to the media landscape, and its value to the evolving consumption of sports content.

Opta’s data is used by the world’s leading sports broadcasters, leagues and federations, digital media outlets, brands and sponsors. Since 2011, they have partnered with Major League Soccer (MLS), and in recent years have picked up partnerships with North American Soccer League (NASL), United Soccer Leagues (USL), National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and most recently, the U.S. Soccer Federation. The data can be seen by fans across each of their digital platforms and broadcast partners.

In a recent interview, Oliver Miller-Farrell, Director of North American Business Development for Perform Group’s content division, discussed with Front Office Sports the global impact of data on the game of soccer through four different areas: The introduction of data to support leagues in their efforts to develop players and win matches, supply broadcasters with compelling content, and overall, Opta helps all of its clients engage fans in meaningful ways and improve the beautiful game.

Leagues

Leagues use data in a variety of manners. From understanding their fans more accurately to measuring the level of match play, data gives leagues a barometer to base their judgment. At its essence, the performance data Opta supplies league partners supports two different categories: 1. Measuring the Quality of Play and, 2. Enhancing Consumer Engagement. In an increasingly globalized landscape, Opta’s breadth of consistent coverage across the world allows leagues to measure how they compare to other competitions in quality of play. Equally important, leagues use data to measure the entertainment value of each match, in many ways the league’s product. Match data is a key resource for clubs making important decisions. Additionally, match data is the means to further engage their core base of fans and drive new consumers, mentioned Miller-Farrell.

Drilling down to the specific uses of data varies geographically as all leagues have their own specific market driving the use and display of their data. No two audiences are the same. The American, MLS fan differs from the Italian, Serie A fan. As such, MLS may choose to display match data in an entirely different manner, often catered to a more statistically mature fan.

“The leagues here are constantly progressing in their use of data, whether it’s to better understand the intricacies of their league, or enhance the match-day experience for their fans,” discussed Miller-Farrell.

Perhaps this is because of the widespread use of data analytics in traditional American sports. MLS, along with other global leagues, examine data to ask questions like: “What makes a soccer game exciting? What engages our audience when watching the game on television or following it via a digital match-center?”

Opta services leagues like MLS by providing them with specific KPIs to help the leagues meet their respective growth strategies. This focus on data and the value it provides to leagues in understanding the performance on the pitch has subsequently led to enhanced engagement in an ever-changing consumption landscape.

Broadcasters

The introduction of performance data has not only given leagues an avenue to measure performance and enhance consumer engagement, it has driven what and how fans consume content around the match. From player analytics to daily fantasy, and outside of the U.S., betting, fans are requiring more information than years past. People are beginning to view the game of soccer at a more detailed level than the ever before. Data points give fans concrete fodder on their favorite plays and players for discussion on social media — the new watercooler. In this modern day, everyone is an expert (or at least they think they are…).

Consequently, this has resulted in a tremendous impact on broadcasters and the information they present to their audience. Consumers want data, and as a result, television broadcasts are becoming highly data-driven, taking the viewer beyond the highlight and into the fabric of the game. With this new desire for data-driven content, broadcasters are now answering the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. ‘How’ did N’Golo Kante win the PFA Player of the Year? ‘Why’ was he so instrumental to the Chelsea team? Despite being an award historically presented to offensive, ‘flashy’ players with past winners including Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Thierry Henry, the data behind Kante’s heroics simply told the story. As seen in the graphic below, Kante was a defensive machine, doing the dirty work that allowed his teammates the offensive freedom to create scoring opportunities. Kante’s ability to tackle (blue dot) and intercept passes (pink dot) contrasted with his knack for avoiding fouls (fouls committed — green dot) makes him an invaluable footballer.

Photo via Opta

The advancement of data allows broadcasters to present viewers with visuals (as seen above) and facts supporting what truly made Kante’s season so special. This data-driven content is no longer a preference, it is a requirement. For broadcasters and anchors it’s a sink or swim world, those who can adapt will rise and those who cannot will be left behind.

Teams

Now if broadcasters are able to present intricate, data-driven content to their viewers, what impact might this data have on the individual team? Aside from its value in understanding the fan, data is being used by football clubs around the globe to evaluate performance and revolutionize player recruitment.

OptaPro, a division of Opta, has been groundbreaking in providing teams with the data they seek to take their team to the next level. For recruitment, data can be used to discover players formerly unreachable. Gone are the days of relying solely on 20 different scouts spanning 15 different countries to unearth that hidden-gem signing at a cut-rate price. With soccer as globally competitive as it has ever been, teams simply cannot rely on scouting alone to source talent. OptaPro supports clubs with tools they use to discover players that make an immediate impact in their specific playing style.

“Data can be used to shortlist players across the globe that could only be evaluated by going around the world to watch all of those games,” explained Miller-Farrell. “It allows teams to utilize tailored, key performance indicators (‘KPIs’) that fit a club’s specific style and positional needs”

Through data, teams have the ability to find a like-for-like young replacement for aging or retiring players. Teams can shortlist players with similar passing, endurance and tactical characteristics to avoid disruption to their playing style.

In 2015, Arsenal signed defender, Gabriel, from Spanish side, Villareal, in an £11m deal. Although Gabriel has since joined Valencia, Arsenal’s initial transfer for the young center-half was heavily driven by the ability to use data as a reinforcement to their scouting network.

In an interview by David Hytner for the Guardian, Wenger explained, “Does [the scouting] system find players for us? That is what we look for, of course, because it is difficult to watch all the games. But what I mean is that if the numbers confirm the [scout’s] eye, it gives you more.” Furthermore, “If a [scout] comes home and says: ‘I’ve seen a good player,’ you can statistically observe this player for five, six, seven games. You send him again, he comes back and says he’s a good player‚ the numbers confirm it, you can say the risk is limited. Though there is always a risk.

In addition to recruitment, data is impacting performance evaluation, opposition scouting, and even the youth academies. Football clubs have departments specifically dedicated to analyzing performance data to enhance team success. In a March article done by Grant Wahl for SI, Atlanta United discussed their use of data analysis at the club.

“[The] use of data analytics is not only for the first team but is something we have integrated vertically throughout the academy.”

The San Jose Earthquakes have even gone as far as introducing a proprietary app for technical staff and players that includes video analysis, nutrition, communication tools and other information.

Albeit, having a treasure chest of data available at the click of a button does not guarantee success, pointed out Miller-Farrell.

“We can dump a bunch of XMLs on a team and it’s not going to do anything. At the end of the day, it’s about what questions you are asking with [the data] and [the team’s] objectives. Data is an apparatus, and to find the most value out of it, it needs to be refined.”

Fans

But how has data actually affected the fan and how are the aforementioned areas of sport using this data to engage that fan?

Through the use of data, teams across the world have seen a noticeable shift in viewership from the live, television broadcast to a new key driver, second screen viewing.

According to Miller-Farrell, “leagues, teams and broadcasters all need to comprehend what the fans are wanting now-a-days.” Each fan is consuming soccer on a myriad of screens from their television, to their iPhone, Android or tablet, but the essence is “understanding the true effectiveness of each of those screens. For example, how is the usage of a second screen on your phone enhancing the experience on the big screen?”

Data has moved teams, leagues and broadcasters to present content in ways that extend past the traditional, live broadcast. Fans want data-driven content to supplement the ‘old-school’ viewing experience. For this reason, Opta introduced Twitter platforms (the Opta ‘Twitter Family’) catered to promoting statistics and guiding media on how to utilize data for consumer engagement. For measure, since the genesis of the ‘Opta Twitter Family,’ @OptaJoe, @OptaJack, @OptaJim and @OptaFranz have collectively generated over 1m soccer followers around the world through their data-driven, direct to consumer content.

The difficulty with data at the fan level is finding the balance between data analytics and emotion. Data is purely supplemental, it was never meant to stand alone.

“Data, inevitably, can strip down emotion,” mentioned Miller-Farrell. “But it can really resonate with the fan when it’s able to trigger an emotion. That’s achieved by adding context to any data-driven point.”

In September 2015, Arsenal defender, Gabriel, was sent off following a clash with Chelsea striker, Diego Costa. The sending off had Arsenal supporters up in arms as Costa had contributed to the dismissal of Gabriel. This frustration was furthered when @OptaJoe produced a statistic showing that, despite Costa’s antics and the Gabriel red card, Costa himself had not been called for any fouls during the match.

Photo via @OptaJoe

This timely use of data, combined with the sending off of Gabriel, triggered additional emotion in both side’s supporters.

This is also highlighted most recently with the David vs Goliath feat of Leicester City. Leicester City: a globally unknown team from the East Midlands that defied odds and were crowned 2015–2016 Champions of the Premier League. But how could the American truly understand the job done by the Foxes? How could the average soccer fan really comprehend the shock of Leicester’s title winning campaign in the midst of a Premier League with more money at its fingertips than ever before?

Enter: 5000–1.

The early season odds of Leicester to win the Premier League title gave the football audience a barometer to gauge the significance of such an accomplishment. It was data that quantified the accomplishment of Leicester City. It was data that supplemented the achievement and triggered the EMOTION of so many fans across the world. Standing alone, 5000–1 means little, partnered with a Premier League title, 5000–1 means everything.

Impact of Data

Although it goes without saying, data and data analytics have clearly had a global impact on the game of soccer. Data users have begun to use data to tell the whole story, or maybe, more simply, the right story. Leagues, teams, broadcasters and fans have all benefitted from its many uses. Whether it’s a league using data to measure match play and enhance fan engagement or a broadcaster leveraging data to strengthen their story. Whether it’s a team expanding their scouting capabilities or fans supplementing their viewing experience, data has resulted in unprecedented growth of the game that so many cherish around the world. Decades ago, the data capabilities of today were just a forethought, a hopeful wish not yet quantifiable. As the game begins to innovate and data capabilities are further exploited, one can only begin to imagine what tomorrow might bring. Thanks, data, and cheers to growing the beautiful game.

Front Office Sports would like to extend a thank you to Oliver Miller-Farrell and the Opta team for their contribution to this piece.

“Part of Perform Content, a division of Perform Group, Opta is the world’s leading live, detailed sports data provider. We collect, package, analyze and distribute more live data, in more detail, than anyone else. The level of detail we collect brings an added dimension to the world of sport. It allows for more innovative broadcast coverage, more engaging digital reporting and more intelligent professional analysis.”

For more information on Opta and the opportunities it can provide your organization, please get in touch through this link.


This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.


Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

Want to learn more, or have a story featured about you or your organization? Contact us today.

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Chase is a Contributor at Front Office Sports. Chase graduated from Texas A&M in 2015 with a degree in Finance but has spent his time working in the soccer space. Chase formerly worked in the Premier League for Burnley Football Club doing Fan Experience and now he works as a Digital Analyst at the United States Soccer Federation. He can be reached at chase@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

Big3 Brand Comes With Diversity, Inclusion, Mental Health Awareness

The Big3 enters Season 3 with a new TV deal, new sponsors and a desire to go international.

Jeff Eisenband

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Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big3 will open Season 3 on June 22 in Detroit. For those pessimists out there who were rooting for Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz’s league of former professional basketball players to fail, sorry. It’s here and expanding.

The league will go from eight to 12 teams this summer. Year 3 includes a nine-week regular season, with seven weeks featuring two different locations. Along with the playoffs and finals, this means the Big3 will make 18 stops – the league hit 10 stops in both Season 1 and Season 2.

Another big move comes on the business side. Earlier this month, the Big3 introduced new CEO Amit Bajaj, a former partner at investment banking and private equity investment firm Centerview Partners.

“It was measured grow at first,” Bajaj says of the Big3’s business success before his arrival. “They made sure they had some national exposure through Fox. They built the brand with players who the fan base was actually familiar with. These basketball players are elite level talents, they have global followings, they engage with fans and people want to come out and see them in person and view them on TV.”

That was the initial business plan. With Ice Cube at the forefront and names like Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler and Allen Iverson on the payroll, the Big3 had a personality to build on.

READ MORE: 3X3U National Championship Puts a College Spin on Three-on-Three

Last season, after Drexler moved from head coach of Power to league commissioner, the Big3 filled his void with Nancy Lieberman, making her the league’s first female head coach. She led Power to a 7-1 regular season record and a Big3 Championship. In Season 3, she will be joined by Lisa Leslie, who is head coach of expansion team Triplets.

“Look, I’ve had a really great life and career,” Lieberman says. “For me to say this is one of the most magical things that’s ever happened to me, it really is because of the people, the opportunity, the players, everybody who’s embraced the thought of being different. Most of these guys, by the way, have daughters and nieces and sisters. They get it.”

Diversity and inclusion are themes that have materialized within the Big3. Mental health and CBD acceptance are two other topics the Big3 is hitting head-on. Royce White, the No. 16 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft dealt with mental issues during his short tenure in the Association – he only played three games for the Sacramento Kings, his third of four NBA organizations. White felt NBA executives, especially with the Rockets, failed to understand the struggles he experienced with mental health.

But White, 28, who played in Canada from 2016-2018, was the No. 1 pick in this year’s Big3 Draft by Enemies, an expansion team coached by Rick Mahorn. Lamar Odom will also serve as a co-captain for the team. Larry Sanders, 30, who battled his own mental health issues, exiting the NBA with skill and money still on the table, was the No. 3 pick in this year’s Big3 Draft by 3 Headed Monsters, coached by Gary Payton.

“We are all cheering for them,” says Amy Trask, Big3 Chairman of the Board, who previously served as league CEO. Her and Bajaj also note the storylines of these players, which will be a focus on the content side of Season 3. Trask has been at the forefront of progressivism in sports for decades now. In 1997, she was hired as CEO of the Oakland Raiders by Al Davis and held that position until her resignation in 2013, earning the nickname, “Princess of Darkness.”

“To work with men like Cube, like Jeff and Clyde and Amit and our coaches and our players who evaluate everyone on merit and without regard to race, gender, ethnicity or religion for business, should work,” Trask says. If there’s such a thing as ‘Business Darwinism,’ businesses that don’t operate that way should fail because by definition, a business that operates in the other manner is excluding that swath of qualified people. Sorry about the soap box, but it’s just exciting to me and I realized my great fortune.”

While most sports leagues are navigating away from CBD and marijuana, the Big3 is leaning in. In April, the league announced an official partnership with cbdMD, making the brand the official jersey sponsor of all 12 teams.

This progressivism is the identify the Big3 has created. That builds a narrative for business discussions. In terms of actual deals being made, Bajaj, Trask and their team are bringing some down the pipeline. Toyota is the new sponsor of the league’s four-point shot, branded this season as the “RAV4-Point-Circle.” Toyota will also be involved with giveaways, hospitality suites and other activations.

Perhaps the most-high profile business move of the Big3’s offseason came with the announcement the TV broadcast will shift from Fox Sports, the partner for Seasons 1 and 2, to CBS Sports for Season 3.

With the CBS move, Bajaj does not expect the style of coverage to change, but the exposure will.

“Fox is obviously a great network,” he says. “They were viewed as a great partner, but now on CBS, we have a substantial number of hours on the main network. CBS is the number one broadcast network in the country and they’ve been so for a long time and they have the best brands in sports by far.”

READ MORE: Nike Aims to Better Support Women’s Basketball with Apparel, Action

With Fox, the Big3 was able to reach into 48 different countries – according to Trask – and Bajaj says part of his job is to keep expanding on that. The league went to Toronto in Season 2, and although the tour will not leave North America in Season 3, Bajaj says going to international cities was “absolutely debated” this year.

“We view there to be enormous potential for this product internationally and you’ll see us announce some efforts related to exploiting the league, the brand and the players,” Bajaj says. “There’s a global thirst for the product in other geographies.”

Bookmark that. In Big3 Season 4, maybe a stop in Beijing, Barcelona or Rio de Janeiro will be in the works?

Those international markets definitely have the basketball desire, but the Big3 is clearly about more than what happens on the court. So they better be ready for that too.

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Innovation

St. Louis Blues Gamify Western Conference Finals with ‘Enter the Zone’

Enter the Zone represents an early test case for how gamification might play out on a larger level amongst St. Louis’ fanbase.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Blues are gamifying the Stanley Cup Playoffs’ Western Conference Final.

Prior to taking to the ice Saturday night for Game 1 against the San Jose Sharks, the Blues launched Enter the Zone, a real-time prediction game for fans, with 2019-20 season tickets on the line. The fan with the best cumulative score over the course of the series will score two full regular-season tickets. Enter the Zone was developed with Tally, the predictive technology company founded by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

With plenty of future potential for technologies like predictive gaming in sports, Blues Vice President of Digital Strategy and Emerging Technology Matt Gardner said the conference finals are a good time to try something new as the fan base is likely more engaged than usual.

READ MORE: Cleveland Cavaliers and Aramark Launch In-Seat Ordering

“We’re always very forward-thinking as an organization and finding new and fun ways to bring our fanbase together,” Gardner said. “The cool thing about this game and what attracted us to it is the fact we could pull something together quickly and utilized not at the crucial moments of the game.”

Enter the Zone provides fans with the opportunity to predict potential outcomes of the game, either prior to or during intermissions. Sample situations include whether Blues forward Ryan O’Reilly or Sharks forward Tomas Hertl will have a higher first-period face-off percentage, or which team will have three shots on goal first.

“We want to make sure fans are locked into action and glued to their TV or at the arena,” Gardner said, adding the game is meant to enhance the action and potentially take off some of the stress off the game for anxious fans.

The cumulative series grand prize isn’t all that’s up for grabs, as each game will also feature prizes for the winners. For instance, the winner of Game 1’s game received two tickets to Game 3, when the series shifts to St. Louis. Other prizes include individual tickets for next season as well as game-used and autographed items. 

“We wanted to make the stakes high for them,” he said. “We want them to know we’d come to the table and give them a big incentive to dive in and play the game.”

Tally CEO Jason LeeKeenan said they want their technology to be user-friendly and free to play for partners, whether those are teams, venues or broadcasts. The deal with the Blues builds off the company’s first partnership with the Portland Trail Blazers for this year’s NBA playoffs.

“It’s great because there’s added excitement to the games,” LeeKeenan said. “We’ve been fortunate to work with teams excited work in the space and kudos to them for rolling it out in the playoffs.”

The Blues will be proactive on their digital channels in reminding fans to play the game, and Gardner said the staff will use a lot of trial and error to determine best practices, even if that means adjusting on the fly. More than anything, though, the series will provide the team with plenty of research. Depending on how the series goes, engagement with Enter the Zone could influence future rollouts of the game or other similar actions, as well how the sponsorship is integrated.

“This is a good opportunity for us to gauge how our fans interact with predictive gaming,” Gardner said. “Sports betting is on the horizon, and this is a good opportunity to see the level of interest our fans have in getting to the predictive-style of gaming.”

The gamification of the series by the Blues is a play toward a trend the industry has heard a lot about in the past year. Between the integration of 5G and the proliferation of sports betting, many prognosticators had long anticipated the arrival of games like Enter the Zone. 

READ MORE: Winnipeg Jets Put Customer Service in the Palms of Fans

LeeKeenan said Tally is meant to be a way for all sporting events to build fan engagement similar to how the Super Bowl does. He and Wilson believe predictive gaming will be integrated into every sporting event within the next 10 years, both live and broadcast.

“We’re here to change the game, and we know these types of predictive experiences will dramatically impact engagement around live sporting events over the next decade,” Wilson said in a release.

Launching in a conference final is a pretty significant endeavor for the Blues. It also provides an exciting opportunity to demonstrate proof of concept. 

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Innovation

Topgolf Lounge Opens New World of Possibilities For Golf

The future of Topgolf is virtual, thanks to the Topgolf Lounges. But could Topgolf also help determine the future of the sport itself?

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Photo Credit: Topgolf

Topgolf has exploded in popularity over the past decade, but the original concept’s physical footprint is a limiting factor of where the golf game can expand. Topgolf believes that limitation will soon be lifted through the introduction of the Topgolf Lounge.

Topgolf Lounges will distill the multi-tier interactive golf game into an indoor experience using the company’s virtual Swing Suite technology and incorporate the entertainment aspects like food and beverage programs into densely packed urban areas and smaller communities. The first location is set to open in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland this fall. The 7,761 square-foot location will have four public Swing Suite bays and a private VIP bay.

“The outdoor experiences have taken communities by storm, and we’re really trying to serve and make golf as accessible as possible,” said Ron Powers, Topgolf Lounge and Swing Suite president. “We know the technology works and the engagement works. Now we need to figure out the balance and an indoor we can extend to highly dense populations.”

READ MORE: Executives Believe Golf’s ‘First-and-10 Line’ Can Help Build the Sport

The Topgolf Swing Suite was developed to offer virtual golf games in compact settings, and the company currently has approximately 130 Swing Suite bays across 50 locations ranging from bars to casinos. Currently, Topgolf licenses out the bays and lets the facility control the pricing and setting.

Within Topgolf Lounges, however, the company controls the whole experience — including pricing, service and food and beverage — and wants to further penetrate markets with their models. Powers called the lounges an “elevated, more intimate” Topgolf experience.

While Powers wouldn’t divulge specific growth plans for Topgolf Lounges beyond the Kirkland debut, he said the company believes the lounge concept is viable in markets across the U.S., specifically two ideal settings. The first is high-density, inner-urban locations — largely on the East Coast in cities like New York, where property isn’t available for the large footprint original concept. For now, the closest access to Topgolf in some regions is 12-to-15 miles on the periphery of a city center, Powers said.

“Now we can bring Topgolf into the core and complement the large facilities,” he said. “It’s thinking about what can we do with the different services to entertain the guests.”

The second is in smaller communities where a full venue might not be justifiable, he said.

“We’re an entertainment platform, but the fact we can mean so much to so many communities and contribute to the game of golf — as an athlete and business guy, I can’t think of a better place to be,” he said. “We have a voracious appetite for growth, and we’re looking to serve communities we’re welcomed in. You’ll see growth, I can guarantee that.”

Powers believes Topgolf can have a place in helping grow the game of golf as well as be an entertainment provider for large swaths of the population. A United States Golf Foundation study found that, of new golfers who’ve played less than three years, 23 percent started at Topgolf. That makes for a considerable opportunity considering that the company welcomes 17 million guests annually between its 53 domestic and four international venues.

In a February article in Golf Digest, World Golf Foundation CEO Steve Mona discussed the role Topgolf plays in growing the sport. He said there isn’t yet a straight line of conversion to golf from the entertainment category, but it’s doing some good.  

“The piece we think is encouraging, particularly when you look at the golf entertainment models, so Topgolf, Driveshack and, in most cases simulator facilities with social components, that’s introducing people to the game in a fun, relaxed, social and non-intimidating environment,” Mona said. “And these things help to overcome some of the perceptions of golf as being not welcoming and too traditional. So to get people into it in an environment like that, it brings people into golf in a way they associate with it being fun and relaxing, and doing things with friends and the things we think will ultimately cause them into the on-course experience.”

READ MORE: GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

Now, beyond the original Topgolf experience, the company will look toward the future it has in the virtual space to continue its growth as a business and potential entry point into golf.

Powers joined Topgolf in 2015 coming from the game software space, with the idea to grow Topgolf through technology. Following his arrival, the company soon made an investment in Full Swing Golf, which Powers called the “largest and most progressive golf simulator company in North America.” From there, the company partnered with game developers to rewrite the golf simulator software to replicate the Topgolf experience. Now it’s expanding the offerings with games like zombie dodgeball and hockey and baseball experiences.

Topgolf clearly has ambitious plans moving forward, all in the name of greater entertainment. They may just grow the sport of golf while they’re at it.

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