Vish Gain visited Wimbledon to get a sneak peek of how IBM is using data and AI to help the tennis tournament engage with fans in its ‘pursuit of greatness’.
It’s not every day that you get to visit Wimbledon and walk around its hallowed courts during the tournament. An even rarer cohort of individuals gets to visit the underground bunkers where the behind-the-scenes action happens. I was lucky enough to do both last week.
Walking into the premises of the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d watched Wimbledon matches growing up, but witnessing one live was a different ball game altogether, excuse the pun.
But my trip to Wimbledon wasn’t just about watching the action as it happened, but to dig deeper. And by digging deeper, I mean visiting the underground data rooms run by Wimbledon’s technology partner, IBM.
IBM has been a tech partner of Wimbledon since 1990. Since then, the two have been linked inextricably, trying to innovate new ways of engaging Wimbledon’s worldwide audience and using technology to live up to its motto: ‘In pursuit of greatness.’
Data analysis, automation and artificial intelligence are just some of the technologies developed by IBM and its partners that are being deployed to make watching Wimbledon, both in-person and from afar, a more meaningful experience.
“It all starts with the data,” Kevin Farrar, IBM UK sports partnerships lead, told me. “We’ve built this platform of innovation with the club to turn massive amounts of data into engaging and meaningful insights for the fans.”
Farrar works with a team of experts who, in collaboration with other technology partners, collect and process the immense amounts of data generated throughout the tournament.
“We’re collecting the test stats. There’s the direction of serve, how the ball is returned, backhand or forehand, the rally count, how the point is won, if it’s a forced or unforced error,” he whispered to me in a room full of experts wearing headphones watching the matches closely.
This information is collected from thousands of data points, which are then combined with data from other sources, such as Hawk-Eye’s electronic line-calling technology, to produce meaningful insights that are fed into the Wimbledon website and to global broadcasters.
Wimbledon and the IBM Power Index
The fruit of this behind-the-scenes work by IBM is best displayed on Wimbledon’s official website, where live updates on matches are combined with AI-powered match insights to make the sport exciting for those not within the premises.
This year, for example, has seen the introduction of the IBM Power Index, an AI-powered daily ranking of player momentum before and during Wimbledon. Using Watson, IBM’s powerful natural language processing system, the Power Index analyses player performance, media commentary and other factors to quantify momentum.
“A lot of people just watch tennis once a year – they watch Wimbledon. They’ll know the big names, but they won’t necessarily know the upcoming players. The Power Index gives a mechanism for them to sort of identify players that are hot at the moment,” Farrar said.
Users of the Wimbledon website or smartphone app can view the Power Index and click on any player they find interesting and want to keep an eye on. They can track the player’s progress and get personalised updates based on what or who they’re interested in.
“It’s an algorithm that takes both structured data and unstructured data,” Farrar explained. “The structured data is the scores and match results. But it’s also looking at the media buzz through trusted data sources, to see what the media is saying about the players.”
The Sherlock-like Watson (although named after early IBM CEO Thomas Watson) is also able to use vast amounts of data and expert input to predict which of the two players in any given match has a higher chance of winning. Fans on the app can weigh in too and see how far they stand from the AI estimate.
Serving the fans
Farrar said the reason IBM is doing all this is to engage with fans interested in both technical details as well as the “drama and beauty of it all” through a visual experience. In the 2021 championships, Wimbledon reached approximately 18m people through its digital platforms.
“Sports fans love debate. So, putting something out there in terms of a prediction that Watson has come up with, they’ll have their own views and their own win factors in their mind. It’s about engaging the fans in that social debate and asking them, ‘Well, what do you think?’”
For Deborah Threadgold, IBM Ireland country manager, the relationship between Wimbledon and IBM is a great example of what the company’s strategy is all around.
“When you look at the data piece, when you look at the automation piece, and the security and how it is all sitting on that platform, and how that’s allowing them to innovate, then that’s exactly what IBM brings to all of our clients,” Threadgold told me.
“So even here in Ireland, whether you’re in the sporting industry, or much more broadly, whether you’re in financial services, public sector, whatever it may be, all of those tools and those mechanisms, you can actually reimagine how that works into your own industry.”
Of the four cornerstone annual tennis tournaments, Wimbledon is by far the most traditional with the richest history. It has been played since 1877 at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London.
“Our challenges here is to get that balance right between the tradition and heritage of the club, and the way they present themselves with technology and innovation,” Farrar said. “The brand is very important to them, and we make sure that that remains the case while still innovating every year.”
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