The Championships at Wimbledon have come a long way in the few years since I sold newspapers as a teenager in the daily queues that snake their way round and round the local Wimbledon Park.
Nowhere has this transformation been more stark than in the use of technology to transform both the live experience for ticket holders and that of the millions of people who watch the tournament on television and follow it online.
Back in the day when newspapers were the only tool available to those camping overnight on the roadside, wanting to immerse themselves in the tournament, my employer the local newsagent made a killing as scores of teenagers humped bags and trolleys of every UK paper (The Telegraph’s weight made getting to the shop on time a priority) shouting proudly that we had “today’s Order of Play”.
Now though, the Championship itself has charged ahead with a digital estate, including winning partnerships and serious innovation, that is far and away the most impressive in world sport. How do they achieve it? Here are some of the highlights:
Having undergone a redesign for this year’s Championship, the main www.wimbledon.com site is as immaculately kept as the turf on Centre Court itself. Laid over a beautiful image of one of the show courts - which delightfully comes to life as you realise it’s actually video as a member of the groundstaff mowing the lawn - the site is a joy to use.
Latest news carousels effortlessly to one side while plenty of prominence is given over to the all important live information such as video, radio and an interactive scoreboard.
The schedule and links to the Wimbledon app (more on that below) both replace the need for those newspaper, while tickets, shopping, social links and a handy Wimbledon/Your Location clock - branded in the form of a watch face of tournament timing sponsor Rolex - all add to the experience, especially for international visitors.
A smooth, well laid out addition to the Championships’ digital offering, the App offers coverage of the full tournament build-up, qualifying, the live tournament and is then kept updated all year round with both Wimbledon and general tennis related content.
The app clearly aims to provide a ‘second screen’ experience - again for both ticket holders and international television viewers - with a clear focus on live content from video and radio to real time scores and push play status messages.
Revolutionary Use of Data
Where things get really interesting though is Wimbledon’s painstaking use of data to deliver incredible levels of detail for everyone from the players themselves, television and radio commentators to the spectators in the stands and around the world.
The Championship's unique 25 year relationship with IBM has enabled Wimbledon to embrace cutting edge technology throughout that time. From what started out in 1990 as a sponsorship arrangement with IBM supplying a simple on-site scoring mechanism in exchange for branding opportunities, the relationship has grown to encompass both organisations' thirst for innovation, as explained here:
Anyone who watches televised sport will be used to player and match data informing their experience but Wimbledon takes this to another level. An army of number crunchers - all junior tennis players themselves so they understand the game - painstakingly record data to enrich the spectacle.
Take each serve as an example - the data entry staff located on every court during every match of the tournament record details of every serve, it's type, speed, target area and the response it generates from the server's opponent.
Meanwhile the players themselves now benefit hugely from the data that their matches produce. Within an hour of every analysed match finishing, IBM present the competitors with a statistic rich video recording of the match, enabling them to accurately break the match down into periods of success and failure, using the data to attribute these to a range of factors such as tactics, fitness/injury and psychology. This data, quite literally, provides the clues to victory.
Launched in time for the 2013-14 season, football’s use of Hawk Eye goalline system was widely recognised at the time as football's long overdue embrace of technology.
And yet early versions of its tennis counterpart - to determine whether shots were in or out - were being tested as far back as the early 1970’s. The Electroline (pictured, left) used pressure sensors under the surface of the court to determine whether a ball landed inside the line boundaries.
This was superseded by Cyclops - a somewhat unreliable system where infra-red beams determined where a serve had landed. Modern methods - including third party solution Hawk Eye which was first used in professional tennis in 2006 - now routinely use live video technology for all line calls. Of course, Wimbledon was at the front of the queue when such technology was first developed.
Fast forward to 2014, when IBM and Wimbledon introduced a sophisticated analysis of "aggressive play" on centre court to enable players and spectators to better understand the ebb and flow of a tournament match.
Using four input factors: the speed that the ball is hit, the closeness to the line at which it lands next to, the amount of movement of the player goes through to get to hit the ball and from where they hit the ball, an algorithm produces unrivalled real time data on player aggression. Capable of tracking each players moments of high intensity throughout a match it accurately reports crucial information on where and how a match was won or lost.
In 2014, Wimbledon tweaked their digital strategy to place a greater emphasis on social media. They didn't merely want to be part of the conversation, they understand it better, utilise it better and curate it better.
The introduction of IBM's Softlayer, which tracks conversations on social media, led to a next level approach from the Championship in relation to social engagement. Greater personalisation options as part of a refresh to the Apple and Android apps - including finding out which particular tournaments, countries and players users were following - presented live text, stats, scores, video and audio presented based on these criteria.
Crucially, Wimbledon now have a clearer understanding of what players and fans are talking about at any given time throughout the tournament and in general, while the advantages of being able to monitor conversations relating to a specific court or sentiments involving the Wimbledon brand clearly have significant benefits.
As the tournament gets under way today - and those in the queue and around the world eagerly search out information - it's great to see an organisation successfully marrying heritage and history with technology and innovation, whilst creating a truly unique experiences for customers and fans alike. The success of the brand's digital strategy truly is the result of embracing the power of data.