How IBM and Wimbledon harness technology to bring tennis to the masses
A partnership now 30 years in the making, IBM and Wimbledon have made huge strides in how information is obtained and distributed. We went behind the scenes at SW19 to find out more
The All England Lawn Tennis Club. Spiritual home of tennis and abound with tradition, it may not appear the most obvious candidate for trailblazing the use of technology in sport.
It is a venue steeped in legend and storytelling. From the inaugural Wimbledon Championships held in 1877 to the longest ever professional tennis match timed at 11 hours and five minutes in 2015, SW19 continues to produce moments of sporting history.
Meanwhile, traditions such as strawberries and cream and an all-white dress code have remained stoutly the same.
But the past three decades have also seen Wimbledon move with the times – and emphatically so.
When Martina Navratilova and Stefan Edberg converted match points to win their titles in 1990, they may not have contemplated the idea of reliving the moment within two minutes via an AI-generated highlights video.
Fast-forward 30 years and this is exactly what every participant and fan is able to access.
As an avid version of the latter, it was with enthused intrigue that I and Deputy Editor Jonathan Dyble set foot into what has been dubbed the bunker, hub of all things intelligent operated by IBM.
Awash with monitors and engineers in their element, it is the job of Digital Architect Simon Boyden to ensure these highly technical operations run smoothly.
“We use the analogy that this is like organising a two-week wedding,” he says, following a brief introduction to how IBM Cloud is the foundation of its Wimbledon activities, providing flexibility and scalability to enable real-time insights.
“We’ve got 20 million looking at the website and streaming data – it is a crucial part of Wimbledon’s brand so it is our priority to make sure everything is available. In terms of our cloud setup, this is hosted in four data centres around the world for resilience and speed or proximity to the users.”
Watson at Wimbledon
Underpinning many critical functions in the bunker is IBM Watson.
Designed to unlock the value of data, Watson is the corporation’s suite of enterprise-ready AI services, applications, and tooling.
Since 2017 the system has processed statistics and live footage of player gestures and crowd reactions to instantly rank match highlights and produce videos within the aforementioned two minutes of a match completing.
“Wimbledon came to us with a challenge,” Boydon says. “They want to be creating their own media so that whenever something amazing happens on one of the courts, it is their video that is being put on Twitter and Instagram.
“So, the question for us was how can we take all of this video and create highlights packages in a more automated, faster way.”
Analysing thousands of hours of footage through the two-week tournament, this year has seen Watson become even more intelligent.
“Bias in AI is a really hot topic at the moment, and what we’ve done this year is leverage an IBM product called OpenScale which has allowed us to add an extra data point,” Boydon continues.
“If you imagine Andy Murray playing on Centre Court, of course the crowd will go wild when he wins a point to finish a five-setter. The next match on may start with a quieter crowd as people go for a break, but it doesn’t mean that the quality of tennis is any lower.
“OpenScale helps us to even these factors out, and this is really important for Wimbledon as it ensures all disciplines of tennis get a fair representation.”
Another key feature is Watson Acoustics, an application which effectively listens to the strike of a tennis ball to allow the creation of tighter highlights packages, which are automatically cut and presented to the Wimbledon.com and social media teams who can publish almost instantly.
Bunker tour complete, we worked our way up to the media terrace via corridors occupied by the likes of Claire Balding and John Lloyd to meet Alexandra Willis, Head of Communications, Content and Digital at the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC), Wimbledon Championships.
Herself a tennis lover (which she expressly states should not be a criterion for the job), Willis has presided over the IBM partnership for the last nine of its 30 years.
“What’s fascinating for me is that my role has changed significantly, which is a great metaphor for change generally in the content, marketing, tech and communications industries,” she tells us. “Once upon a time we just had a website which sat in the IT department – today we adopt a multi-platformed marketing strategy that uses all sorts of clever technology to bring it to life.
“The great thing about our relationship with IBM is that we work out what our challenges are and bring these together with what tech IBM has available. The solutions you see have come from our briefs and what we want to do with the event, and while I wouldn’t describe myself as overly technical, I am heavily involved in setting those briefs.”
Discussing our learnings from the bunker and the introduction of bias filtering to Watson, Willis immediately points to a major benefit.
“Wimbledon is so much more than a singles tournament,” she says.
“We know from our fans that they love a variety of tennis, from mixed doubles and wheelchair to juniors and invitationals, and it is fantastic to see them enjoying the mixture of content.”
Serving the masses
Such packages are, thanks to concerted efforts to diversify content and distribute to a wider audience, seen by more consumers than ever before.
“Our partnership with IBM is critical in helping us to disrupt the traditional perceptions of Wimbledon through innovative, world-class uses of technology,” Willis tell us, explaining how the collaboration extends the year-round, well beyond the two-week limelight period of The Championships.
“In particular, it is enabling us to place content with fans where they want to consume it and acknowledges the ever-increasing focus on video and new content formats.”
The Wimbledon app is central to this.
Freshly upgraded for 2019, it can now serve Wimbledon audiences in territories with lower bandwidth and less developed mobile hardware.
This tremendously boosts the potential reach of AELTC content. For example, IBM cites that some 900 million fans in India express an interest in Wimbledon, and that the new progressive web app is designed to provide a lightweight experience requiring less bandwidth than is available in markets like the UK.
“The demand for catch-up style content in parts of the world that may be asleep during live play is huge,” Willis adds. “This year, for example, we’ve understandably had huge interest from the US in Coco Gauff and her incredible story, as well as Serena Williams playing mixed doubles with Andy Murray.
“We’ve also had a lot of traction from Australia thanks to Ashleigh Barty, who is now the number one female player in the world. But these are just a few examples – we get messages from people watching all over the world.”
Chatbots are another means of obtaining information, again a Watson-powered solution available through the mediums of Facebook Messenger and Fred, the in-app assistant designed to help guide visitors around SW19.
Further, the production and distribution of digital content does not simply end at the conclusion of the mixed doubles final on the last day of The Championships.
As our conversation draws to a close on the sunshine-clad terrace, we ask Willis a simple but nonetheless important question relating to her responsibilities – what about next year?
“We have already started writing our to do list,” she responds. “It is all about thinking of what can be done better next year and even beyond that. It is a continuous, ongoing improvement process but we only have two weeks to nail it when the tournament is on.
“However, we recognise that the demand for content extends far beyond those two weeks and have made a conscious effort to go all out over a six week period while the grass court season is in action.”
Willis also highlights how the week after Wimbledon represents an opportunity to reflect and celebrate what has happened through a variety of different types of content, including mid-form videos and 30-minute podcasts, mediums which have been enormously successful so far.
“Wimbledon doesn’t simply close its gates though,” she adds. “There is appetite for what is happening in the tennis world which could impact The Championships as well as events here throughout the year.
“There is a lot to talk about, and our job is to target that as effectively as we can.”