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IBM tech helps Wimbledon serve blend of grace with power

The leafy streets surrounding the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) in south-west London are empty and even the famous “village” of courts and walkways is scarcely populated, excepting security guards, maintenance workers, sundry staff… and British number-one Andy Murray who enters the gates at the same time as I do. But next week it will be full every day with long queues snaking outside, for this is the home of Wimbledon, one of the world’s greatest sporting tournaments.

Wimbledon is famous for many things: the white dress code for players, Pimms and lemonade, strawberries and cream, lush grass courts and officials in blazers. It might appear to be the epitome of English tradition but that appearance is the result of a hard focus and paying attention to details.

“We’re a very simple brand,” says Mick Desmond, commercial and media director of the AELTC at the annual curtain-raiser to showcase new technologies at the event. “We have an ambition to be the best tennis tournament in the world. We’re unique in sport whereby the strategy and ambition is run by a private members club so we can take a very long view.”

That very traditional image “doesn’t happen by accident”, he admits, but is achieved through planning and preparation to enhance the notion of Wimbledon as a special event that is steeped in tradition. In marketing terms it’s a brand, the current plan is to “behave more like a global brand”, appealing to tennis fans (and many non-tennis fans) all over the world.

 

Heavy server

In part that means using technology to extend the appeal of Wimbledon and bring it to the screens of Beijing and Kolkata as well as the big tennis centres. The Wimbledon.com website is already superb but, working with key technology partner IBM, it remains a work in progress.

“We need to ensure it’s fit for purpose for the tennis nerds but also for people that might not watch any other tennis,” says Alexandra Willis, AELTC head of communications, content and digital.

Using IBM’s predictive analytics technology, datacentre hosting, deployment tools and website user experience nous, Wimbledon.com offers a feast of reactive, pre-emptive and planned video, plus news, data points, background information and more, alongside the core updating of scores. But just as important is a sense of proportion which means Wimbledon never becomes the billboard for hosts of bookmakers, fast-food sellers, banks and other sponsors that are the wallpaper around most sporting tournaments.

It also means that there is still no plan to offer public WiFi within the grounds of the Wimbledon village or provide the in-seat ordering and promotions that are features of American sporting stadia. And if that seems quirky then how about the hypnotic website video of the courts being mowed or the video of British tennis hero Andy Murray with dogs. “It was obviously an internet sensation because it was a tennis player with puppies,” Willis quips.

New this year is an Apple TV app and iOS and Android smartphone apps that map the village and let visitors keep an album of their experiences, as well as vast swathes of real-time data and analysis, and support for various social media and interactive tools, including those popular in growing markets for the Wimbledon marque, reflecting that “global brand” ambition.

IBM also takes responsible for security, backup and disaster recovery. It says cybersecurity attacks aimed at disrupting Wimbledon are growing at a rate of 500 per cent annually against a backdrop of a 1,500 per cent rise in threats across major sporting events.

 

Playing a long game – Big Blue and Big Green

When I ask the AELTC’s Desmond how much the partnership with IBM is worth to Wimbledon and whether this is a pure quid pro quo exchange of tech for brand, he bats back the question like a baseliner returning an overhead smash with a deft lob. But the IBM-Wimbledon combination that has persisted for 26 years now and IBM runs a bunker of technicians feeding data mined by its predictive analytics software to media and viewers, while serving the website from its SoftLayer datacentres around the globe.

Wimbledon provides what another speaker at the event – Ed Smith, the former cricketer who now runs the University of Buckingham’s History of Sport degree course – calls the “curated sense of history”. It is, in part, a beautiful artifice that lures the viewer or visitor with more than a sporting event but also a “sense of continuity”. Think, Smith suggests, of the Ralph Lauren outfits worn by umpires, ball boys and ball girls: an American brand selling back to the British a version of outfits we might have worn 100 years ago.

If IBM is Big Blue then Wimbledon is Big Green. These are two powerful brands attempting to update their images for the 21st century based on what they have traditionally been good at. Blue might have the tougher challenge as it battles to stay a giant in an IT landscape changing very quickly. But its investment in tennis is a way of showing off its technology in a small part of the world that becomes the focus of our attention for two weeks every year.

 

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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