AELTC/Bob Martin

IBM still breaking new ground at Wimbledon

IBM Watson is playing an increasingly important role in growing the fanbase and relevance of the Wimbledon tennis tournament

IBM’s Watson is being used by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) as it strives to attract and retain digital audiences to the 154-year-old Wimbledon tennis championship.

After more than 30 years of providing the AELTC with technology for collecting statistics, as well as the IT foundations underpinning them, IBM is constantly working to help the organisation automate digital services and engage with fans.

Today, IBM Watson artificial intelligence (AI), sitting in IBM Cloud, is personalising content to encourage fans who try out digital platforms to do so again and again.

Alexandra Willis, communications and marketing director at AELTC, which runs the Wimbledon tournament, said the goal of working with IBM is to attract, retain and engage with more fans, through platforms such as the Wimbledon App and website.

“Our main goal is to ensure we are maintaining Wimbledon’s relevance, attracting online audiences and providing them with the opportunity to engage with the event and keep coming back,” she told Computer Weekly.

Serving fans through AI

The partnership with IBM, also a sponsor, has come a long way since the original agreement in 1990 saw IBM generate rudimentary stats for the AELTC. “IBM has helped us ensure we have the foundations to do that from a broader technology perspective, and [with IBM] we are continually challenging ourselves to innovate on what we have today and that we are adapting the way we provide for fans,” added Willis.

IBM Watson AI creates tailored highlight reels automatically

Watson is the nucleus of much of the latest innovation, with personalised services. For instance, today Watson is automatically creating highlight reels tailored for individual fans, using a combination of structured and unstructured data.

The ability of AI to automate the creation of personalised reels of match action is perhaps the most overt example of progress. In the past, the creation of highlight reels for broadcasters required humans to manually go through matches and pick out the key moments, which was very time-consuming. But today, Watson can create a reel automatically that is personalised for individual fans.

“These two-minute reels are automatically created by Watson through a combination of stats, listening to the crowd reaction and looking at the gestures of the players,” said Kevin Farrar, IBM UK sports partnership lead. “We then make it available to the Wimbledon digital team.”

“We work with the club to bring the beauty and drama of Wimbledon to life for digital fans around the world. It is essentially a massive data operation. It all starts with the data”
Kevin Farrar, IBM

A huge amount of data is generated across the 18 courts at Wimbledon, and without in-depth knowledge, it is difficult for the average digital fan to fully appreciate a game. “It’s all reaching slightly different audiences, which was our goal, rather than preaching to the converted,” said Willis.

This is where IBM data scientists, combined with tennis experts, come in. “We take the tennis stats and combine it with other data sources, such as the Hawkeye system tracking the player and ball movements throughout a rally. We then create insights which are shared to different audiences,” said Farrar.

“We work with the club to bring the beauty and drama of Wimbledon to life for digital fans around the world,” he added. “It is essentially a massive data operation. It all starts with the data. Turning it into meaningful and engaging insights that we can put out on digital global platforms.”

A huge amount of data is generated across the 18 courts at Wimbledon

Another popular digital offering is the IBM Power Index which ranks player momentum, form and performance of players in the lead-up to and during the championships. It looks at structured data such as results, but also unstructured data, including the buzz is in the media. It then applies an AI algorithm which comes up with a ranking for players.

“The Power Index was designed to help fans work out who to follow, and there has been good engagement with that,” said Willis. “Then, once fans have taken an interest in a player, we wanted to educate them on what to look out for in a match.” Another tool, Match Insights, presents fans with facts and allows them to challenge Watson and other users in making match predictions based on the detailed stats they receive.

There has been success in building audiences through digital platforms like these, according to Willis. “We have seen steady growth of digital platforms,” she said. “When I started here about 10 years ago, we were getting an audience of about 11 million unique devices. In 2016, we had a record of 21 million unique devices connect, when Andy Murray won. We are on course for a very successful tournament this year.”

“Beyond scale, it is about demographics and location. We are proud to be a global brand and our audience reflects that,” she added. “In terms of a younger audience, we are developing things using AI to help young people better understand tennis, so when they stumble upon it they are fans for life.”

Wimbledon is part of IBM’s global sports portfolio, which includes the Masters golf and the US Open tennis. It has teams that work all year around from the UK and Atlanta, US.

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