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Sports, Big Data, and AI at Wimbledon 2018

Wimbledon is widely regarded as one of the most prestigious tennis competitions in the world, having entertained sports fans for well over a century. With the first championships kicking off way back in 1877, it’s one of the longest-standing tournaments of its kind.

But how does something steeped in history manage to recapture our excitement in just the same way, year after year?

The answer could be in the tournament’s ability to move with the times. For something to flourish for so long, it has to stay relevant—and this is exactly what Wimbledon has done. The South London championships continue to be one of the most watched, and loved, events globally—all made possible not only by such champions as Serena Williams and Roger Federer, but also thanks to the innovations behind the scenes.

The company responsible for the latest developments at Wimbledon is U.S. tech giant IBM, who has now powered the games for almost 20 years. Over that time, the firm’s technology has advanced beyond what the tournament could ever imagine, and there’s no sign of it slowing down.

Behind the Scenes

IBM’s Wimbledon Client Executive, Sam Seddon, gave a behind-the-scenes tour of the firm’s “tech bunker” at this year’s tournament in July to show how the big data giant delivers live tennis action to different mediums all over the world.

Bursting with high-end electronics, the bunker lies underground by Court Number 1, the second biggest grass court at Wimbledon. Inside, double rows of screens line the walls, and the desks are filled with IBM tech-tennis experts all there with one main objective: to get the best and most relevant content to fans across the globe.

The bunker is dominated by a giant screen hanging on the wall which summarizes all the data sent from each of the championship’s 18 courts in real time. This data isn’t broadcast live, but instead, is delivered to broadcasters and commentators during the tournament who feed it back to the fans, breaking down all the match information point by point. And there’s an awful lot of it. For example, Seddon said that last year IBM recorded over four million game points each day during the championships.

Because commentators’ memories don’t operate quite like Google, this information gives them the best overview of all the matches happening across the courts so the live commentary and broadcast content not only sounds more engaging, but helps fans connect better with the match.

This summarized data is also provided to players looking to analyze their performance post-gameplay via a video file. Crucial data sets are embedded within these video files that players like Kyle Edmon or Maria Sharapova will receive just 20 minutes after play to compare with previous matches. There is historical match data dating back to 1877, which has been manually uploaded to modern IBM systems—so current matches and player performance can be compared to performances of yesteryear.  

“We provide the players video of their match shortly after the match completes. The video is indexed by statistics so players or coaches are easily able to view all ‘unforced errors’ or ‘net approaches,’ which allows the coaches to quickly view aspects of their player’s game,” explained Seddon. “Some players like to get this information sent to their mobile phones to watch in the car on way home to assess their play; a system that we began testing this year.”

Fresh for 2018

For the past few years, Wimbledon has worked with IBM to take advantage of its artificial intelligence platform, Watson, and bring some impressive analytics onboard. IBM captures and distributes the scores and stats for every match; the speed of serve; data from the line calling system, such as the player and the ball’s X, Y, and Z position; as well as video of the match.

They combine this data with player bio information and their historical performance to create “experiences” for attendees, fans, and viewers. Examples include automated video highlights sent to fans watching from home; a new AI bot in the Wimbledon app that lets users ask get any Wimbledon-related question and get answers in one place; and a new real-time insight alert, which highlights matches of particular interest and quality.

Another AI innovation introduced this year is an enhanced automated video highlights feature for Wimbledon fans. Instead of combing through hundreds of hours of footage from all the concurrent games, an algorithm has been taught to recognize player emotion from the tournament’s six main Show Courts and identify the most exciting moments of Wimbledon. These high-quality video highlights are available to fans in a blazingly fast 15 minutes.

“Using Watson and AI technologies we are able to identify every point in a match and analyze that point for excitement. The system has been trained to understand what a ‘highlight-worthy moment’ looks like and sounds like,” explained Seddon.

Here, the IBM AI system analyzes the sound of the crowd and the emotion on the players’ faces, as well as any player celebration such as arms in the air of fist pumps.

“Once the point is analyzed there is an overall excitement level assigned,” added Seddon. “We can then very quickly after the match completes create a highlight package of the match that includes the most exciting moments.”

This helps Wimbledon’s digital team produce highlights more quickly and at a greater scale.

“One of the things we’ve done is improve how we are capturing match data from a quality point of view,” Seddon explained. “We now have two senior data operators that monitor some of the Show Court matches from two communication panels. But what they are able to do from these systems is monitor any match from these two chairs.”

This means any queries on points scored can be better analyzed, ensuring that the scoring system used at Wimbledon is more accurate than ever.

The communications panel is backed up by an IPTV system, which allows IBM to float to any court around the ground and look at the footage from the day. This means that if one of the outside courts, like Court 8—which would be normally operating on its own—has a problem, IBM can not only immediately communicate with the court staff via radio, but also see exactly what they’re seeing. If they need clarification on a game point, for instance, this team can now go in and update and review statistics on any court, anywhere in the grounds.

“The whole rationale and focus around that is, out of all the mass of info we are capturing; there’s a real trust element around it,” added Seddon.

“The media trust us, the players trust us and Wimbledon itself trusts us. This level of infrastructure and technology is all about getting that right.”

As a result, IBM’s AI technology is not only helping Wimbledon to produce engaging content at a greater scale and more quickly get valuable, accurate content to the fans. It’s positioning Wimbledon for the future of sports where technology sits at center stage, ensuring that the championships can connect with fans across the globe, whatever device they are using—providing them with all the data they need to be truly engaged in the game.