Just as technology has been a barometer for societal shift, sport has proven to be a successful stage to connect people with new ideas. Whilst Wimbledon remains deeply engrained in its heritage, the tournament also provides an elevated stage to showcase innovations beyond the confines of the court.
This year’s edition of the grass-court grand slam, which gets underway on 1st July, is again undergoing several digital upgrades.
Alexandra Willis, the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC) head of content and digital, spoke to SportsPro about the ways in which Wimbledon is trying to stay ahead in the technological arms race.
“One of Wimbledon’s greatest strengths is its identity, which comes from its heritage and traditions, and differentiates Wimbledon as one of the great grand slams,” Willis explains.
“However, it is also important that we remain modern and to do so in such a way that the tournament maintains its traditions while not appearing out of touch.
“A few years ago, it used to be the case that watching a live stream on a mobile phone would be a miracle, whereas today there is now an expectation to deliver direct-to-consumer content to a high quality right through the tournament.
“The conversation used to be how do we integrate innovation with our traditions, whereas now we talk about how do we leverage innovation to elevate our traditions.”
Wimbledon's Court One has been fitted with a new retractable roof ahead of this year's tournament
In the tournament’s latest technology tie-up ahead of this year’s spectacle, Wimbledon and IBM have joined forces with Amazon and Google to integrate bespoke voice-command functionality into the technology giants’ connected devices, including Alexa or Google Home.
The software, which has been created in collaboration with the tournament's official technology partner IBM, will allow users to ask questions throughout the event, using the code word ‘Wimbledon’.
“When you consider the power of consumer behaviour and the integration of voice technology in the home, enabled on the various devices available, it changes the way people are able to engage and use information,” Willis said.
The conversation used to be how do we integrate innovation with our traditions, whereas now we talk about how do we leverage innovation to elevate our traditions.
“We believe this is an area of great potential for the tournament to interact with our customers and engage with a wider audience.”
Also new at this year’s championships is a ‘progressive web’ experience that the digital teams at Wimbledon and IBM have integrated into the existing My Wimbledon app so that it is tailored to various global markets.
Not only is this to ensure that the app provides the unique user experience that artificial intelligence (AI) now makes increasingly accessible, but also to guarantee that the platform is compatible to different territories where fans may be exposed to varying grades of mobile technology.
“This year, we are expanding the way we use AI technology, not only for general highlights, but for bespoke player highlights reels,” Willis continued.
“Therefore, if a fan’s favourite player is Roger Federer, they will also be able to tailor that content player by player, and proves very useful. None of our fans are equal, whether that is where they live in the world, or their knowledge of the sport.
The BBC has committed to showing all of this year's matches in 4K
“For example, in India, where mobile penetration is really high but the adoption of our app has been low, it is very important that we offer a version of the My Wimbledon app that is suited to their needs.
“We have nine million fans of Wimbledon in India, based on the research we’ve conducted, and while fewer people will be using the latest version of the iPhone, it made sense for us to create a ‘progressive-web’ app that fits all. We are one of the first sports properties to do this.”
The My Wimbledon app will also play a pivotal role gathering user information ahead of the championship’s transition to a digital ballot, which will come into effect in time for the 2020 tournament - a move Willis describes as “very much the start” of transitioning the tournament’s ticketing over to digital.
Oppo, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer, is also making its Wimbledon bow having signed a five-year deal to become an official partner, and the AELTC’s first Asian sponsor.
Wimbledon is expanding the way it utilises AI to create bespoke player highlights reels
As part of its activations at SW19, Oppo has also helped deliver a feature for fans that champions photography throughout the tournament, including a map of the venue that suggests a series of prominent locations around the Wimbledon grounds where they can take iconic snaps.
“Our partnership with Oppo has very much been the driver behind the development of the ‘progressive web’ app, and specifically for these markets [in Asia],” Willis adds.
Elsewhere within SW19, the biggest piece of technological infrastructure at this year’s event is the new retractable roof that has been added to Court One. Unveiled earlier this year, the retractable mechanism follows the game-changing addition made to Centre Court ten years ago and allows for extended play and protection from the unpredictable British weather.
Also within the grounds, the AELTC has expanded its free public WiFi to ‘Henman Hill’, where fans will be able to vote for which matches they would like to view on the big screen.
With IBM marking its 30th anniversary since it first aligned with Wimbledon, the technology firm is seeking to leverage more uses from its cloud platforms.
Last year, the tournament registered a record 220 million views of highlights, of which 14 million were generated using IBM Watson’s AI technology. While IBM’s digital team is aiming to build on its success again this year, additional features have also been added to the clipping process.
This year, IBM Watson Acoustics, a sound tool that is usually used within manufacturing facilities, is also being implemented to listen for the sound of a serve to ensure that edited footage is as streamlined as can be, and so that Wimbledon’s media partners, such as the BBC and ESPN, don’t waste a single second of their tournament rights.
Sam Seddon, IBM Wimbledon’s client executive, explains: “By combining the sounds of a crowd cheering, whether a player is animated, and data that indicated whether it was a key moment in the match, the technology is able to create automated highlights packages from thousands of hours of play across ten different courts.”
In addition, IBM Watson OpenScale will be implemented to avoid artificial bias between matches on court. Players with larger fanbases - garnering increased crowd enthusiasm - or those who are overly animated, can skew focus towards them, so the AI enhancement helps to ensure that each player on court gets a proportionate amount of attention.
While there may be half a million in attendance, you also have serve many more watching at home, which, like any wedding day, has to go perfectly.
Away from the court, IBM also offers organisers assistance in managing all elements of data and security, for audiences inside the ground and beyond the realms of SW19.
“While there may be half a million in attendance, you also have serve many more watching at home, which, like any wedding day, has to go perfectly,” continues Seddon.
For viewers at home, after trialling the technology last year, the BBC has committed to showing every one of this year’s matches in 4K HD.
American Express has teamed up with Andy Murray to create a new VR experience for spectators
Meanwhile, as part of its partnership with the AELTC, financial service provider American Express has teamed up with British tennis star Andy Murray, to create a new virtual reality (VR) experience called the Champion’s Rally, which will allow visitors to practise on Centre Court alongside the two-time champion.
“Like most events, fans are looking for a variety of different experiences,” Willis added. “While Wimbledon is very important to them, being able to combine that with popular players within the game is a very powerful tool.”
With all of that crammed into All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’s compact site, there is no danger of the grass-court grand slam getting stuck in the weeds.