Game, set and AI

Game, set and AI
Published: 1 November 2019 - 5 a.m.
By: Digital Studio Middle East Staff

The Wimbledon Campionships is almost as well known for its green lawns, celebrity appearances and strawberries and cream, as it is for its world class tennis.

But behind the English country garden façade, the oldest tennis championship in the world has embarked on an ambitious digital transformation project that now pits the 151 year old tennis club against some of the world’s biggest media firms.

Wimbledon like many other sports clubs and events is being swept up in the massive changes brought about by the advent of over the top content providers and video streaming. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which hosts the tournament, realised it is essentially a media company with a global tennis brand.

“Sports is disrupting the media industry, and media companies are looking at sports for where they need to go next,” said Sam Seddon, Wimbledon and RFU client and programme executive, IBM.

“That is because sport is at the forefront of the changes in the way people consume and use digital media,” he added.

IBM and the Wimbledon Championships have worked together over the last 30 years. However, since 2012, Big Blue has helped the private members tennis club to create and execute a sophisticated media strategy that enhances the user experience, whether it is for one of the half million people who attend the event, or for somebody on the other side of the world watching the tournament on their smartphone.

A key driver of change has been the realisation that The Championships exists in a hugely competitive media landscape. The sheer scale, scope and availability of competing media — whether it is sports or not — means that if Wimbledon is to remain relevant it must “act like a data or media organisation that also puts on a sporting event. That is how they have to operate”, said Seddon.

As with all media firms, audience reach and engagement have a direct impact on the value of the business. While the event makes money from ticket sales, the broadcast rights are the main source of income.

The popularity and the quality of the event is absolutely intertwined with their commercial revenues,” said Seddon. Wimbledon’s “commercial revenues are predominantly orientated around broadcast deals and ticketing”, he added.

The realisation that it effectively competes with everybody from ESPN to Netflix (theoretically at least) had to be integrated with Wimbledon’s notions of quality. So much about the two week event circulates around Wimbledon’s brand quality — it is not just having world class players on court. It incorporates everything about the event; from the setting, to the atmosphere, to the catering and the tournament’s history.

“It’s a way of thinking and it’s an appreciation of where they are in the world. They’ve inherited an absolutely amazing brand because of their focus on their heritage, the location, the flowers, tennis in an English garden, the tennis whites, the strawberries.... All of that helped maintain a quality of brand,” explained Seddon.

To ensure Wimbledon’s brand ‘quality’ transcends to its digitally audience, IBM and Wimbledon work on a yearlong design innovation cycle to ensure brand quality, creativity and crucially the speed necessary to compete with other global media outlets.

In practice, this process is not to dissimilar to planning a wedding — albeit a wedding that lasts for 24/7, for two weeks solid, has half a million guests and will be streamed to 20 million people worldwide. “You need the same quality throughout your media output,” said Seddaon.

“Coming at it from that angle, we need to ensure that our content looks over and above ESPN or Star, or Channel 7, or [other] media organisations, or broadcasters. Wimbledon needed to have a greater advantage,” he added.

In the last year the innovation cycle resulted in multiple projects aimed at providing visitors and the larger, global audience with a greater user experience. “From a digital brand point of view, we present the brand as the next best thing to being here,” said Seddon.

The visual elements of it, the creative elements of it, and how we present the content on a mobile device or a responsive website, whatever it is, that is essence of the brand,” he added.

Underlying the design and creative work, IBM and Wimbledon put in a lot of work into audience segmentation, enabling it to target information and services at its consumers — not just those based in the UK, but globally.

The segmentation work, which has been enhanced by an understanding of social media profiles, enables Wimbledon to build a direct, personal relationship with its audience. “We’ve got another layer [which] is our understanding of digital engagement; devices, types, etc,” said Seddon.

Audience segmentation provides the foundation for Wimbledon to offer personalised services to its audience. For example, users of the official app can personalise content around their favourite players, which is then pushed out to them.

Also, if visitors to the event signed on to the Wi-Fi, they would be presented with a different splash page based on their onsite location.

Although there is no ‘sign on’ to the official event app, this year was the first time it asked people who were not already members of the ‘My Wimbledon Community’ to sign in to wimbledon.com. Through My Wimbledon Community, the tennis club now plans to step up its year round communication to its fan base.

Also from this year, Wimbledon intends to take its ticket ballot online, and so capture data about everybody that enters the ticket draw. (Previously, this was managed through the local postal services.)

IBM designed and developed a light version of its app for Wimbledon fans in that don’t necessarily have access to high speed internet connectivity. This was particularly important for the tournament’s big social media following in markets such as India.

We built this light app, which allows you to get a high quality Wimbledon experience and the news as quick as you want it, on a device and bandwidth profile that’s better for you,” explained Seddon.

However, arguably it is the work to accelerate the production and distribution of edited videos that has held the key to boosting Wimbledon’s media engagement and audience traction.

After going through a ‘design thinking’ process, the team drew up a problem statement that asked ‘how do you break news faster than a global media organisation?’

This became the departure point for a number of artificial intelligence-powered projects that enabled Wimbledon’s media team to successfully predict breaking stories and then respond to them.

Initially, the team created a data engine that helped inform content editors before records were about to be broken on court.

“So they could prepare stories and data visualisations, and present those to social media and get first mover advantage,” commented Seddon.

“This developed into creating video highlights using artificial intelligence,” he added.

IBM and Wimbledon qualified what ‘defined’ an exciting moment on court by identifying a number of emotive data points. For example, is the audience excited? Are the players animated? This meant including sound and visuals as data sources. This was combined with other more-obvious data drawn from the overall balance and stage of the game. Is it a break point? Is it match point?

By combining sets of data we’re able to rank every single point, across ten courts, every single match. So thousands of tennis points ranked for excitement,” explained Seddon.

All this data was then ranked against a set of business rules, which in turn enabled the AI to accelerate the selection of material for the video highlights. What had previously taken an editor 45 minutes to complete, the AI was now finishing in two minutes, freeing up the editor to either look at something else or add to the overall quality of the video content.

“What that allowed us to do was maintain and enhance the quality of highlights across the matches, while we’re reducing time,” said Seddon.

The end result was a massive increase in the number of video views over the course of The Championships. “Video content is hugely important at any sporting event… Last year we had 210 million video views during The Championships, this year it was 380 million views.”

Artificial intelligence also played a key role in analysing cyber security threats during the event. Given the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s focus on quality, Wimbledon’s cultural position and the importance of digital audiences to the club’s business model, cyber security was given a high priority from the outset.

“The challenge is how to ensure that we’re delivering the speed and quality of delivery, while not compromising our security,” said Seddon.

“We use QRadar, which triages across the entire environment and identifies any security event,” he added.

Triage analysis was passed to Watson for Cyber Security, which also assessed the security event and provided an assessment based on its own constantly updated security database.

This enabled IBM to manage 317 million security events over the two week championship with a security team of just one and half people.

The numerous projects emerging from the 12 month innovation cycle helped Wimbledon achieve a massive boost in its online and TV audiences — which will directly impacts the commercial fortunes of the club. The direct relationship between audience size, engagement and revenue is driving other sports clubs and events to invest heavily in ICT.

According to Seddon, US$3 billion is expected to be invested in ITC services across the sports industry between now and 2025.

With many sports clubs essentially being small businesses, with powerful brands the need to leverage technology to build communities, extend audience reach and community with a relatively small teams, the trend towards ICT service investment is likely to accelerate.

“Increasingly media and sports industries are coming together,” said Seddon. “Whether is around streaming technology, or augmented reality experience that’s over-the-top, or how artificial intelligence could be used to provide more meaningful insights to commentators,” he concluded.

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