Q&A with Mick Desmond, Commercial Director of The All England Lawn Tennis Club
Game, set, match, tweet
Wimbledon’s digital strategy scores big with fans
In the summer of 2013, Britain’s Andy Murray won the gentlemen’s singles title at Wimbledon, the world’s most prestigious tennis tournament. In the upset victory, Murray broke one of the oldest droughts in modern-day sports. Before Murray, the last British man to win was Fred Perry in 1936. Thousands of mobile phone-toting fans documented the clinching moment with a mad volley of “selfies.” The same scene played out around the country, and the world, setting, for a while, a Twitter record with 120,000 tweets per minute. Mick Desmond calls the moment a “social media triumph” and proof that the tournament’s digital strategy is helping the 137-year-old tournament attract a younger and more geographically diverse fan base. That a storied institution such as Wimbledon is banking on mobile apps, Twitter and data to reach emerging markets speaks volumes about a changing of the guard in the sports world. Not to worry – the strawberries and cream are here to stay. –Bernhard Warner
Wimbledon has been responsible for so many memorable moments over the years. What stands out for you about last summer's tournament?
When Andy Murray lifted the trophy in 2013, 95% of the audience, I would estimate, took a photograph of him with their smartphone or tablet. I suspect most of them then posted it to their social networks. It was a true social media moment, the kind that defines live events of this magnitude. People who come to Wimbledon don't just want to watch tennis. They want to play a part in history-in-the-making. The fans want to engage with people at the grounds and with friends who can't be here.
Of course the athletes are active on social media, as well.
Absolutely. Particularly the teenage athletes. It may be their second or third time here, but they are still taking photos of the grounds and sharing it with their networks on Twitter and Facebook. They are true digital natives. For all the players, the reliance on data has become a major part of training. To prepare for their next opponent, the players analyze match data breaking down how competitors rank across a variety of performance categories. The players and coaches are big users of SlamTracker, the performance analytics tool IBM developed for Wimbledon. And, of course, they also want the social data. They want to know who's popular, who's trending at Wimbledon. There's a bit of ego involved. The bragging rights are huge. And that's great.
The social media buzz must be nice, but it must also raise the stress level that comes with trying to pull off an error-free event
With over 1.2 billion eyeballs on us during the two-week Championships, there are mornings I wake up in a bit of a cold sweat saying, "I hope the roof over Centre Court doesn't jam today." You have to be sure everything runs smoothly from a digital capability, too. We continue to expand our digital capacity, into cloud, data, mobile and social as well to grow our global fan base.
“Digital access is key, particularly if you want to reach younger fans”
What are you expecting for a payoff, short term and further out?
Last year, we had over 100,000 visitors to our Wimbledon museum, and close to 90% of the museum visitors came from overseas. For many of them, they probably first glimpsed the Wimbledon experience on TV or via our digital applications before deciding to visit the grounds. Providing that instant and exhaustive access through digital is key. Digital and mobile allow us to extend the Wimbledon fan experience to the entire world. Last year, we had just under 20 million unique digital users, and 55% of page views came to us through mobile. That's up from just 6 million in 2010. It's not just fans from tennis-mad countries like Australia, or the United States, either. They come from emerging tennis markets such as China, Japan, India and across South America. And thanks to mobile, an increasing number can follow the tournament on the go, on a train even. We know who's engaging, when they are engaging, what's of interest to them, and what's not of interest to them.
What are they telling you?
Digital access is key, particularly if you want to reach younger fans. Our iPhone, iPad and Android apps are not just growing our audience, they bring the action to tennis fans wherever they are. Fans also want to dig into the data around each match. We've responded with SlamTracker and with Live @ Wimbledon, our online video and radio channel. So, data is another key. The more data you can provide, the more fan interaction and engagement you stimulate. The viewing experience has changed dramatically in the past five to ten years, and the rich social media commentary around the matches and the availability of match data are driving this change. Before, the broadcaster had all the data, stats and analysis. Now, it's an even playing field; you have to give the fans access to everything that the pros get. Making data available can tell fans why Rafael Nadal, for example, won that third set. Now the viewer can see what just happened, and what is likely to happen next. That makes for more compelling tennis.
When you think of Wimbledon you think of the storied tradition the classic tennis matches, the strawberries and cream, the queen. How are the traditionalists responding to this push into digital?
We made a tough choice in allowing the fans to freely use their mobiles and tablets here at the grounds. There was some degree of worry that this could prove a distraction for the players or for fellow fans, and that it would somehow detract from the great tennis play. But it hasn't been disruptive at all. In fact, it's helping us burnish a new image. Not only are we reaching a younger, more digitally savvy audience, it's sending a message Wimbledon is not an elitist, stand-offish institution. The decisions we've made over the past two to three years about new digital channels, data and content are in response to what the fans like, and what they engage with. We know this because we do a lot of listening to the fans. There is a lot of tradition here at Wimbledon, but that doesn't mean we must keep serving them tennis in the way they've traditionally viewed it. If the fans today want a far more interactive, immersive tennis experience, and if they want to engage during the match, then we have to deliver that.
Where do you go from here?
Over the past year we've unveiled the new Wimbledon Master Plan, a blueprint for growth over the next 10 years. We're doing a lot of work on the courts, including a roof over No.1 Court. We're also investing in digital. We want to know, 5-10 years from now, what will fans demand from digital? One consideration may be to add more data to the screens at the grounds. You have to take this long-term view. We recognize that Wimbledon is a cultural event that transcends sport. It's about historic matches and it's about the Pimm's, and the strawberries and cream. It's about the fans congregating on Henman Hill. We want to capture all of that, and bring it to our digital assets. Sharing more of what happens here on the grounds will only build engagement. The more interactive and immersive we can make the experience, the more forward-thinking, forward-moving, but also fun, it will be.
This is one in a series of articles and infographics brought to you by IBM about the changing nature of organizations and leadership in the age of Big Data. Dispatches from a Smarter Planet is being created by veteran journalists Jeffrey O’Brien and Bernhard Warner and designer Carl De Torres.