Future of Sport

Wimbledon wants to teach its audience about tennis. Luckily, there’s an app for that

CNN  — 

The organizers of Wimbledon, the world’s oldest tennis grand slam and most prestigious grass court tournament, think some of its followers don’t know all that much about the modern game.

It’s not intended as a slight; not everyone can be an armchair pro.

“We did some research a few years ago, which demonstrated to us that most people who engage with Wimbledon are actually not year-round tennis fans,” says Alexandra Willis, director of marketing and communications at the All England Club, which hosts the tournament.

“What we heard anecdotally was, ‘I’ve heard of a few top players, but I actually haven’t heard of many others’ and ‘this all feels a bit confusing and bamboozling,’” she adds.

It’s understandable. Tennis is experiencing an era in which the men’s game and to a degree the women’s have been defined by a small quota of dominant players with astonishing career longevity.

To fill the knowledge gap, the All England Club has teamed up with IBM to use artificial intelligence (AI) and big data to boost fan engagement – and try to predict every match winner in the process.

Spectators in fancy dress as their tennis icons at Wimbledon 2017.

Think Moneyball, only aimed at the fans.

As part of the “Match Insights with Watson” feature on the Wimbledon app and Wimbeldon.com, an ever-shifting “IBM Power Index” ranking has been assigned to each player, courtesy of IBM Watson, the company’s AI for business.

The ranking is generated by analyzing athletes’ form, performance and momentum, explains Kevin Farrar, sports partnership leader at IBM UK & Ireland. “Because it’s updated daily … you can see (players) to watch, (and) it can start to identify potential upset alerts – all interesting to the fans,” he explains.

The idea is to help less-initiated fans to find players to follow, “developing their own fandom,” says Willis. Users can choose to track players and are served up personalized highlights as the tournament progresses.

An IBM technician poses with screens showing AI-generated highlights during Wimbledon 2019. The tournament has partnered with IBM to educate the fans at the 2022 tournament.

Watson’s party piece is using data to predict every match winner. Displayed as a simple percentage likelihood, the AI makes the call by drawing on millions of data points recorded before and during the tournament. Factors include previous results between the athletes, current form, and more granular details like first serve win percentage, ace frequency and percentage of points won returning first serve.