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IBM's Wimbledon: Finding new fans

By Catherine Turner, Writer

October 1, 2019 | 7 min read

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The world’s oldest and most famous tennis tournament, famed for its grass courts, strawberries and cream, players in their all-whites – and a very British sentiment. The Championship is one of sport’s most premium digital properties – and one of its most forward thinking. The Drum looks at its partnership with IBM and how that helps elevate and differentiate the iconic tennis tournament.

IBM Wimbledon

It is in the bunkers, underneath the hallowed turf itself, is where the magic happens.

To one side of Centre Court is the Wimbledon tournament’s broadcast centre – the hub of all the content production and technology that makes Wimbledon happen over the course of two weeks. And in the bunkers, underneath the hallowed turf itself, is where the magic happens.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of its partnership with IBM and with it two new innovations in the form of AI-powered highlights packages and a ‘lo-fi’ app to encourage adoption in parts of the globe where there isn’t the wifi network coverage needed to deliver the high-quality experience of the flagship app.

It’s particularly apt for fast-growing markets such as India, where Wimbledon estimates there are some 900,000 people who have an affinity with or interest in tennis, and its largest social media audience globally.

Advantage technology and big data

As Alexandra Willis, Wimbledon’s head of communications, content and digital, says: “The fascinating thing about Wimbledon is that this is a very traditional brand. In many ways it’s no different to how it was five, 10 or even 15 years ago, but what really has changed is the underlying complexity of the technology that powers The Championships.”

According to Willis, the way that Wimbledon uses technology has become a core part of its brand, delivering not only “what our consumers expect from us but maximising the opportunity that we have as a great sporting event”. In fact, during the course of the tournament IBM has to scale capacity by some 55,000%.

The highlights package uses AI in order to allow Wimbledon to produce the highest-quality content quicker than a global media organisation. It is based around ‘excitement’ and takes in numerous data sources.

Sam Seddon, head of IBM’s sports partnership with Wimbledon and the RFU, explains: “Watson, our artificial intelligence, is listening to the sound of the crowd – are they really animated? Are the players really excited, are they fist-pumping? Is the data telling us it’s an exciting moment?”

The ability to turn around relevant content so quickly also frees up Wimbledon’s producers and editors to focus on “capturing those moments that will resonate around the world”.

Over the course of The Championships the team ranked more than 40,000 points of tennis data and hundreds of hours of video footage to deliver highlights packages within around four minutes of a match concluding. “It’s a combination of AI and people coming together,” says Seddon.

Data science to measure thrill of a match

There are learnings from other industries and applications, for instance in the integrity needed in AI. For Wimbledon, that might mean factoring in the fact that after an epic five-setter, crowds tend to disperse and the following contest will, naturally, have a very different atmosphere. Hence the introduction of Watson Open Scale, which allows the team to identify inadvertent bias.

It’s all very different to three decades ago when the two partnered for the first time. Then, says Seddon, Wimbledon “didn’t even have an IT department”. Milestones since include 1995, when they provided the first real-time scoring website, its first app in 2009 and the first use of AI in 2016.

Seddon adds: “Wimbledon was a very early adopter of AI and bought into the whole capability that that would provide it with. Now we’re at a stage where rather than Wimbledon running to catch up as a sports business to adopt these new technologies, actually the media industry itself is now looking to sports organisations as the disrupters because they have these huge fan bases – there’s a huge amount of content being created.”

The next stage is to ramp up personalisation and provide a meaningful exchange of data. Initiatives such as the forthcoming digital ballot for tickets will help, as at present massive amounts of data is essentially lost via the tennis clubs who currently distribute tickets on behalf of Wimbledon.

Willis believes that marquee events such as Wimbledon have to innovate faster and harder in order to stay ahead of the game. She says that not doing so is “completely damaging to the reputation of the brand” and would not deliver the experiences that fans expect and demand.

“Regardless of whatever industry or business you work in, knowing your audience, your fan, your customer, your consumer is absolutely critical in today’s society,” she says. “Relevancy has probably never been more important and that feeds back into competition for attention, especially with people’s limited attention spans.”

There is much that other brands could learn from Wimbledon, which stands for many different things for many different people – tennis, tradition, fashion, celebrity or a great British occasion, perhaps.

“We like to think of Wimbledon as a global event that is proudly held in the UK,” concludes Willis. “Sport has such an amazing opportunity to say: ‘Let’s get on the front foot, let’s think about all the things that we could do and drive some of that change rather than just reacting to it,’.”

How IBM powered Wimbledon in 2019

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and IBM recently announced a series of innovations for The Championships 2019 across AI and Cloud, to make processes more efficient, to make experiences more insightful.

Enhanced AI-powered automated video highlights for Wimbledon fans. Not all highlights during a tennis match are equal. For example, a highly passionate crowd favourite could generate more excitement than a more reserved yet equally skilled opponent. As a learning system, Watson has been taught to better recognise acoustics and understand inadvertent bias increasing the quality of the output.

With sound analysis from Watson Acoustics, the system can now recognise when the ball has been struck, allowing a tighter cropping of highlight clips, saving vital time and maximising every second of rights footage. Using Watson Open Scale, the system can now also recognise levels of noise and excitement levels of players.

A progressive web app to provide a service for Wimbledon audiences in territories with lower bandwidth and less-developed mobile hardware. For example, acknowledging that more than 900 million fans in India express an interest in Wimbledon, the new app is designed to provide a lightweight experience so fans in those territories can make sure they don’t miss out on the latest scores and results.

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