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Data Mining

Wimbledon serves up tech with tennis

The American sports of baseball, basketball and football are drenched in data and are endlessly analysed by TV pundits armed with petabytes of information. Cricket is noted for attracting geeks and in recent years the technology has caught up with the numbers to help umpires get decisions right and the rest of us understand what’s going on. Football (or soccer if you must) has gone from a beautiful, albeit simple, game to one where every activity is endlessly scrutinised and where presenters are given new tools as if it’s Christmas every season. But the Wimbledon tennis tournament is making a late rally to become the ultimate technology-enhanced sporting occasion.

In some ways it’s an unlikely combination. The 138-year-old event in southwest London and understated English tradition go together like a horse and carriage with Her Majesty the Queen on board. But at an event last week on the hallowed grass courts, executives of event host the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and technology partner IBM discussed the many and various ways they are using technology to make the great tournament even more enjoyable.

IBM and Wimbledon themselves have a heritage, dating back two decades.

“The Wimbledon philosophy is ‘less is more’,” said Mick Desmond, AELTC commercial and media director. “We choose our partners very carefully and we try to raise the bar each year. We want to surprise and innovate and where the canvas is most blank for us is the virtual world. How do we make this the next best thing to being here?”

One of the people charged with making that happen is Alexandra Willis, head of digital and content at AELTC.

“Wimbledon.com is our mouthpiece to the world,” she said. “In the 20 years Wimbldeon.com has existed 10 million people have come to Wimbledon but last year alone we had 63 million people visiting the site.”

Willis’s double aim with the website and with mobile apps for iOS and Android is to have a differentiated offer that’s “unmistakably Wimbledon” but also delivers information and insights.

The apps are fully responsive and adaptive to their platforms but a surprisingly high number of visitors, about 80%, come to the .com site through desktop computers. The latest site update takes advantage of this with a live scoring panel on the right side of the page so the four in five visitors who come there just wanting to see scores can do so at a glance. However, Wimbledon eschews modern web trendiness by not having parallax scrolling, for example.

But for those who want more there’s plenty of it, even including drone-based flyover views of the exquisitely manicured courts. There’s also an offline mode so visitors can finish reading articles even when they’re off the grid on the London Underground.

Social media is another area of Willis’s and one where, she says, consistency of “tone of voice” is important. AELTC will pay for social media for the first time this year to stand a better chance of being heard above the noise of the crowd. Mining all those tweets, likes and updates can be interesting too. Traffic in India got a rocket-boost when Maria Sharapova said she didn’t know who the former cricket superstar in the VIP crowd, Sachin Tendulkar, was.

IBM client executive Sam Seddon said Big Blue’s role is “to help bring stories to life”. The tools he has at his disposal for this grow with every passing year. Aggressive Play lets visitors understand more about the nuts and bolts of play from how hard a ball is hit to where did it bounce, was the player taken out wide, how far did they have to go and so on. Other tools evolve: Slam Tracker made its debut in 2008 but becomes more sophisticated as more data passes through the system, making the chances of being able to predict outcomes of Grand Slam tournaments higher. Keys to the Match delivers KPIs based on over 41 million data points analysed though IBM’s SPSS statistical thresher and IBM’s Watson data analytics.

Then there’s information dissemination and Wimbledon is set up so that a big news event such as a record serve speed can be relayed from the command centre nigh instantaneously to everyone who wants to know about it.

The Wimbledon tournament only lasts two weeks so activity and traffic to the site and apps is by necessity spiky. IBM uses the same private cloud infrastructure as IBM.com and can tap its SoftLayer remote datacentres for extra capacity and its security tools to deal with the near doubling rise in threats.

Other technology capabilities are for a select few. Players have their own site based on IBM’s Bluemix cloud platform with personalised notifications, practice court booking schedules, order of play and so on. As for those actually going to the tournament, iBeacon technology will be in place to guide visitors to the Club.

From what I have seen Wimbledon has done some very smart things: technology is everywhere but it’s unobtrusive and classy. The place is a verdant vision, the tools are in place, the balls are new and the sun is shining. Now come on, Andy…

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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