Wimbledon: Technology Meets Tradition
How the world’s oldest tennis tournament is going modern
The Internet of Things (IoT) has already made a huge impact on the world of sports and personal fitness. Wearable activity trackers offered by a host of companies can track everything from steps taken to heart rate to sleep hours and quality. In 2012, tennis players gained access to IoT data and tracking through the introduction of Babolat Play, a connected tennis racket that uses an accelerometer and a gyroscope to record and transfer data about power, endurance, and technique to a phone, tablet, or computer . As technology continues to gain a strong foothold in this traditional sport, it’s no surprise that the Grand Slam tournaments are looking to make the IoT work for them as well.
A Brief Context and History of Technology at Wimbledon
The Grand Slams (Wimbledon, the French Open, the Australian Open, and the US Open) are the four most important annual professional tennis tournaments. Of these, Wimbledon (est. 1877) is the oldest and widely considered to be the most prestigious . Wimbledon is also known for respecting tradition: it still requires players to wear all white for matches, it waited 14 years to make the switch from white to yellow tennis balls (yellow balls were first introduced in 1972 for easier TV viewing), and it is the only Grand Slam to still use grass courts. However, despite dedication to tradition, Wimbledon does have a history of integrating technology into tournament operations. It partnered with IBM in 1991 to introduce radar technology that measures ball speed, and in 2006 it adopted Hawk-Eye, which uses 10 cameras to pinpoint where the ball hit the ground, allowing players to “challenge” line calls they believe to be incorrect .
In 2016, Wimbledon faced a particularly challenging situation: “During Wimbledon fortnight, sports fans would be spoilt for choice: in addition to the tennis, they could watch three international cricket matches, two Formula One Grand Prix, nine stages of the Tour de France, and nine crucial matches in the Euro 2016 football championship” . In response to this challenge, Wimbledon partnered with IBM to introduce new technologies to is repertoire to help better connect with fans. A primary concern for Wimbledon is generating content that resonates with its audience, which is becoming increasingly difficult to track as social media activity continues to grow and become more complex. While IBM developed several solutions, including using machine learning techniques to generate valuable information about what content will best resonate with fans by reading social media posts, this post will focus on one particular solution: cameras that read your facial expressions .
“If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to this year’s Wimbledon tennis championships, be prepared to be scanned by a supercomputer” 
For the first time, the 2016 Wimbledon tournament featured connected cameras that sent images to IBM’s Watson, which analyzed the images to determine fan emotions. So why is Wimbledon taking this dramatic step? At first glance, the information gathered from this technology seems like nothing but a novelty – sure, it’s fun to know who the majority of the crowd is rooting for during a particular match, but can that information actually be used to create and capture value? Although Wimbledon has been quiet about this project, the consensus is that they are looking to use this technology to sell more merchandise and market future tournaments .
Ace or Double Fault?
First, regarding marketing future tournaments, Wimbledon has no problem selling out tickets. In fact, there are numerous multi-page blog posts that walk aspiring ticket owners through the ins-and-outs of navigating ticket purchasing (one example here), and the line to get day-of tickets is so famous/infamous it’s not a “queue” it’s The (capital) Queue. Additionally, data about tournament attendee player preferences would not give tournament directors insight into the preferences of the broader tennis community. Yes, plenty avid fans travel to Wimbledon, but the crowd will always be disproportionately British and presumably will have a stronger preference for British players.
Second, regarding merchandise sales, the connection between selling branded Wimbledon merchandise and knowing preferred players seems distant, particularly because Wimbledon doesn’t generally sell sponsored merchandise: “One of the Club’s key objectives is to enhance the unique character and image of The Championships by keeping our courts and grounds relatively free of commercial sponsorship and product placement, hence the lack of overt advertising around the Grounds” .
It is without question cool that Wimbledon can know who the crowd prefers in a close match, and that information would no doubt be entertaining for viewers at home. But can they capture that entertainment value? Given the potential legal challenges and uncertain connection to revenue, I believe their efforts are better spent elsewhere.
 “Babolat Play,” [Online]. Available: http://en.babolatplay.com/play#. [Accessed 13 November 2016].
 “Wimbledon History,” [Online]. Available: http://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/atoz/history.html. [Accessed 13 November 2016].
 D. Snelling, “WIMBLEDON SPECIAL: How technology is changing the face of tennis,” [Online]. Available: http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/gaming/484242/WIMBLEDON-SPECIAL-How-technology-is-changing-the-face-of-tennis. [Accessed 13 November 2016].
 “Wimbledon 2016: In pursuit of greatness with cognitive and cloud technologies,” [Online]. Available: http://ecc.ibm.com/case-study/us-en/ECCF-WWC12371USEN. [Accessed 13 November 2016].
 M. Wall, “How Wimbledon will use IBM’s Watson to serve up data,” BBC, 21 June 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-36574406. [Accessed November13 2016].
 H. Byrne, Outsell, 28 July 2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.outsellinc.com/blog/tennis-turbulence-are-more-just-party-tricks-ibms-watson. [Accessed 13 November 2016].
 “Ambush Marketing,” Wimbledon, [Online]. Available: http://www.wimbledon.com/en_GB/atoz/ambush_marketing.html. [Accessed 16 November 2016].
Student comments on Wimbledon: Technology Meets Tradition
Very interesting post! I agree that the connection between understanding who the audience is routing for and driving up entertainment value for home viewers seems tenuous at best. My question is whether reading the crowd’s mood and reporting that information is appropriate in a sporting context. Athletes performance may be adversely affected if they know that the crowd is routing against them. It will be interesting to see if IBM can come up with some additional ways to apply its technology to boost viewership!
I am so glad that you wrote about Wimbledon and the technology that they are using, Nicole, this is actually something that my Mum and I talk about a lot! I am very anti-technology at Wimbledon. I think technology has fabulous applications in many places but when one layers it into the Wimbledon experience the Tournament loses its authenticity, and in my mind, much of its value.
I remember from growing up when they started using the Hawkeye technology that you mentioned in your post. I was frustrated. It belittled the role and need for the umpires and their word was no longer the final say. Human error is a part of life, and definitely a part of sports, and to remove that element eradicates a part of the game. Many people in England felt similarly when Wimbledon decided to upgrade Centre Court’s technology by adding a retractable roof that would close mechanically if the weather turned. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_Court). This is an example of Wimbledon, ‘missing the point’ again. There used to be so much suspense that would be built up around a championship match that was two sets in and then had to be paused for the rain, the concept of there being an ability for random chance to play in heightened the excitement of the match.
All of this aside, my main objection to the new Wimbledon / IBM partnership lies with your comments, Nicole. What does Wimbledon gain by implementing this expensive software asides from a potential PR nightmare? One intern could do a 5 minute browse on Twitter and see what the general consensus was in terms of which player people were supporting and the merchandise at Wimbledon is almost 100% ‘Wimbledon’ merchandise – meaning products in the Wimbledon green and purple with the Wimbledon logo. Unlike other sports, it is not player specific, and to change that would be thought of as crass by the majority of the English population. I am frustrated and annoyed that this new technology has been implemented and as you did, Nicole, I question the value that it is really even adding.
I agree that it remains to be seen how much business insight can be derived from collecting data on the audience reactions. I’m struggling to find many business decisions that could be made based on this data and what challenge is Wimbledon looking to solve. Do you have any thoughts on other types of “augmented” viewing experiences Wimbledon could add to help fans be more engaged in the game? Football has great slow motion replays, multiple angles, and commentators can draw out the plays on screen. Perhaps one day it may be possible to see the amount of spin, trajectory, and speed of a particular shot. As I am not a tennis player, I’m not sure how technically feasible this is or how interesting these metrics are for a fan. In any case, I look forward to seeing how Wimbledon continues evolving with technology.
Thanks, Nicole. As an avid tennis fan, I’ve found the technological innovations in the sport quite interesting. I am hugely in favor of the “shot spot” instant review – it provides clarity, removes controversy, and quickens the game by reducing arguing with umpires. I’d also like to see more advances in terms of equipment and player development (see: the post on the NBA) through the use of technology.
However, from a business perspective, I’m not a particularly big fans of using technology at Wimbledon. First, and most importantly, it goes strongly against the traditional values of the Wimbledon tournament (a tournament which still requires players to wear all-white). Second, the incremental value-add does not seem to be there at the moment. It’s pretty obvious who the most popular players are in the tennis world – I don’t see any technology improving our perceptions here. Also, tickets at a tournament like Wimbledon will likely sell out regardless of marketing techniques. Pricing strategies might be more useful for lower-level tournaments that are struggling with attendance.
Nicole, totally agree that it is not clear what Wimbledon’s aim is, in getting a supercomputer to recognize facial patterns in the audience in order to ‘Tweet’ on social media?? Paradoxically they still do not offer wifi on their grounds! I would think that this technology can be put to better use in other realms of entertainment where we want to identify the “emotionally rewarding” moments and use the information gleaned to improve the product/service or market to potential customers. Take for example Watson’s trip to the movies. Watson’s facial recognition technology was used to pinpoint the most bone-chilling seconds of a horror movie, coincidentally about artificial intelligence, to piece together a trailer. Check it out! https://www.ibm.com/blogs/think/2016/08/31/cognitive-movie-trailer/ #spine-chilling
This is really cool Nicole – I’ve been fascinated by the Hawkeye technology the last few years. I think it’s the most accurate and simple review in all of sports. I’m similarly skeptical as the comments above about using facial recognition software to better connect with tennis fans. I’m more curious as to how technology can be applied to give recreational tennis players a greater connection to the game when they’re practicing. It would be cool to see AR/VR technology applied to tennis training, so that players could see how their serve compared to Federer’s serves during Wimbledon. Don’t have the vision fully fleshed out, but I can imagine some cool technologies springing up in the next 5-10 years that try to engage players while they’re on the court and keep fans excited during tournament offseason
Thank you so much for writing about Wimbledon! I actually was very fortunate to work at Wimbledon for NBC Sports from 2005 through 2008. I still remember when the Hawk-Eye was released in 2006. The team working on it wore these super cool black t-shirts that said ‘Hawk-Eye’ in white writing, and one of my favorite days (behind getting to wear Federer’s white polo blazer after one of his matches and feeling his sweat) was getting that team to give me a ‘Hawk-Eye’ t-shirt.
This tournament holds a very special place in my heart, and in some ways I was a little sad to hear about the more innovative uses of technology at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club. I personally feel that the more traditional aspects of the tournament are what make it special. More specifically, I would be pretty sad if they got too efficient at selling tickets so that there was no longer a need for The Queue (we used to have to pass The Queue when going to pubs in Wimbledon Village at night, and we’d have to run past because people camping out would spray us with super soakers). I completely understand the need to continue to drive interest and revenue in sport, but to me, the traditional aspects about Wimbledon are what make it magical. I hope they are able to walk this line carefully going forward!
Thanks for your post Nicole! I agree with a lot of the comments above and the points you made in your post regarding the lack of connection between knowing how fans are reacting to the matches or who they are rooting for and generating higher revenues for Wimbledon and improving the viewer experience. I could see a lot of value in other sports, such as baseball, where there is a lot more time in between innings and there are a lot more opportunities for the event organizers to intervene to entertain viewers if they feel like attention and energy is lacking in the stadium. There are not those same opportunities at tennis matches, particularly at Wimbledon, where fans are expected to maintain a certain decorum and can only cheer (or even make any noise) at certain parts of the match. The only potential use I could see would be for tournament organizers to be able to adjust which courts matches are played on, depending on if a rising star emerges that the crowd has taken a sudden and unexpected liking to. If they can use this technology to determine that the crowd clearly favors an unranked, underdog player who would normally play on one of the smaller courts, they could theoretically move his or her next match to a slightly larger court to allow more people to watch. This could help develop new talent and raise the profiles of lower ranked players, who otherwise would never have the chance to play on a larger stage, as the main courts are reserved for the seeded players at the tournament.
Nicole, thanks for this great post! I agree with your point that given the legal challenges, revenue uncertainty, and lack of true benefit, efforts are best spent elsewhere. Above all, Wimbledon should focus on providing the best interactive mobile app experience for its fans during the fortnight. To do this, I believe Wimbledon would greatly benefit from first introducing wi-fi on the grounds. Wimbledon currently does not have Wi-Fi on its grounds and sources indicate that there are no plans in place to correct this. With limited connectivity, the user may be reluctant to incur the additional higher mobile data costs, especially given the large international audience attending the events. The result is an inferior guest experience and limited app usage. Just this past weekend the Harvard Yale football game, which did not have Wi-Fi access available, created a situation where internet usage was virtually not possible given the lack of wi-fi and 20,000+ person crowd.
Before Wimbledon moves on to bigger and greater things, the team needs to make sure to stick to the basics: making sure that fans can truly enjoy the games and participate in an interactive and personalized Wimbledon experience via mobile app — all of which require Wi-Fi!