Serving up tradition with an innovative spin

Wimbledon teams up with IBM Consulting to drive AI-powered solutions

Kristin Fern Johnson
8-minute read
A young female tennis player returns in slow motion.

Since the first Championships in 1877, Wimbledon has brought together fans spanning all walks of life — from members of the British royal family to business owners to armchair sports fans — to revel in the best tennis the world has to offer.

Preserving the rich cultural heritage of the oldest, most prestigious tennis tournament in the world is of the utmost importance to the All England Lawn Tennis Club, host to The Championships each year. The Wimbledon experience is steeped in tradition: players dress in all white and play on grass courts, and guests enjoy fresh strawberries and cream and sip Champagne and cocktails.

At the same time, society is changing in increasingly dramatic ways — as are the nature, depth and breadth of current and potential fans. Digital technology is at the forefront of that change, offering new ways to engage fans, the press and players, alike. Wimbledon has fully embraced those opportunities to not only strengthen its already formidable brand, but to become a digital media company in its own right, producing tennis-related video, web and social media content and publishing it on its digital platforms, including Wimbledon.com and the Wimbledon apps, and through news outlets.

Underlying that innovation is Wimbledon’s longstanding relationship with IBM. The two organizations joined forces in 1990 and have become inextricably linked in their mutual quest to use technology to deliver new, exceptional experiences to Wimbledon audiences.

“It’s about leveraging innovation and all of the tools and opportunities that IBM brings to the table to preserve our traditions and keep them relevant,” says Alexandra Willis, Marketing and Communications Director at the AELTC. “Wimbledon is a celebrated British brand with a great depth of pride in its history and unique characteristics. IBM is a technology company that has evolved with the times. That mutual understanding, sense of trust and vision has set up this unique partnership for success.”

In recent years, data analysis and insights, and automation and AI have played increasingly pivotal roles in merging tradition with innovation to drive audience growth. “We’re always looking to see how we can improve fan engagement through the use of AI and other IBM technologies,” says Bill Jinks, IT Director at the AELTC. “How do we bring the next level of data to the fan? How do we get Wimbledon front and center and use machine learning processes to bring these things to the fore that people might not see instantly? That’s exactly the sort of innovation that excites us.”

Strawberries and sugar desert for sale at Wimbledon

Since 1990, IBM has captured

9.2

million Wimbledon data points

During The Championships 2021, Wimbledon reached approximately

18

million fans through its digital platforms

Our relationship with IBM is extremely collaborative. Any digital project requires a technology team, a data team, a marketing team and a content team working closely together. IBM is the glue that makes that happen for us.
Bill Jinks
IT Director, All England Lawn Tennis Club

Partners in innovation

Tennis player holding a racket at Wimbledon

Over the years, the Wimbledon and IBM iX® teams have developed a unique approach to innovating together. “Our relationship with IBM is extremely collaborative,” says Jinks. “Any digital project requires a technology team, a data team, a marketing team and a content team working closely together. IBM is the glue that makes that happen for us.”

In 2011, the two organizations set out to create a process to drive ongoing innovation. “One of the keys to good partnership is being able to test, learn, evaluate and make changes,” says Willis. “The innovation process between Wimbledon and IBM is a great example of that. The challenge was, how do we keep up with the pace of change in the world, but also deliver on the qualities of excellence both of our organizations are known for? Essentially, we needed a way of working that was more of a constant conversation than just an annual cycle.”

Today, the innovation process has evolved into an ongoing dialog, and two times a year, in spring and autumn, the IBM iX team leads workshops with cross-functional participants from both organizations.

During the spring meeting, the group ideates new possibilities — exploring the latest AI capabilities, recent technological successes and possible improvements, and ideas for innovations that might benefit fans and the overall tennis community. The IBM team then tests and develops proofs of concept for the most promising ideas, with ongoing review and input from the Wimbledon team.

In the autumn meeting, the larger group comes together again to decide which concepts to put into production for the next Championships and which to earmark for future development. “It’s vital to have enough component parts in the mix that provide tangible value to our fans and enhance the relevance of Wimbledon and of IBM, delivering on both of our business objectives,” says Willis. “At the same time, we want to capture people’s imaginations with new ideas. Creating the right mix is an ongoing challenge, but also very exciting.”

Innovation in action

During the 2019 spring innovation meeting, the Wimbledon and IBM teams focused on addressing two key challenges: How to engage fans more deeply with Wimbledon and tennis on an ongoing basis — for many, The Championships is the only tennis event they watch all year — and how to encourage fans to follow up-and-coming players who weren’t famous yet. The teams conceptualized an index showing which players were performing well at any given time and were noteworthy from a media and fan buzz perspective.

Wimbledon trophies on the stadium tennis court

That index was the foundation for a digital platform launched during The Championships in 2021: the IBM Power Index with Watson®. Using natural language processing, the platform analyzes player performance before and during The Championships. Presented as a leader board, it draws upon data from custom media content, recent player performance and myriad other factors to generate daily player rankings. Features include predictions for likely match winners, potentially tight upcoming matches and upset alerts for matches favoring the underdog.

In developing and testing the index concept, the team realized it could apply the data behind the index to generate insights around specific matches, such as how one player might fare against another. The result was IBM Pre-Match Insights with Watson, an AI-generated “preview sheet” comparing players of upcoming matches head-to-head.

Fans can use the platform to view the IBM Power Index for both players, the comparative likelihood-to-win percentage for each player, insights about players pulled from trusted, curated news sources and “by the numbers” highlights that translate key player statistics into insights.

Success in 2021

Tennis player holding three tennis balls behind his back

While 2021 was an unusual year — with reduced onsite capacities due to the ongoing pandemic — fan participation was considerable. Wimbledon reached 18 million fans through its digital platforms. Wimbledon.com logged more than 49 million visits, Wimbledon video footage attracted 1.7 million views and video-on-demand views numbered 11.3 million.

“We couldn’t have delivered the 2021 Championships without IBM,” says Jinks. “As we were ramping up from a spectator perspective, it was very much all systems go from a technology delivery perspective.”

Throughout The Championships, IBM technology kept the AELTC’s digital platforms up and running without a hitch. “We rely fully on IBM Cloud and IBM Security to enable Wimbledon.com to scale up to the size needed for The Championships and to scale back down afterward,” says Jinks. “We used IBM AI, which started a few years back with AI highlights. And we moved into the Power Index as a fan engagement AI.”

The IBM Cloud® infrastructure that runs the Wimbledon digital platforms nimbly handled the huge surge of traffic that occurs during The Championships — which can increase up to 55,000% of traffic rates before and after the event. IBM Security® was on guard the entire time, blocking more than 40 million threats over the course of the tournament.

A year to commemorate

The 2022 Championships bring much to celebrate: a return to the full tournament experience after two pandemic-affected years and the 100th anniversary of Centre Court, the world’s most famous tennis court, in its current home on Church Road.

They also bring fresh digital innovations. After successfully launching the IBM Power Index and IBM Pre-Match Insights with Watson platforms in 2021, the team has focused on refinements for 2022 to make the platforms easier to use and understand. The result is a bite-sized view that gives fans a quick overview of which player is likely to win a match, with an option to expand the view for more detail.

Smartphone with IBM Wimbledon app

To provide additional context into how ratings are calculated, the team added more explanatory information to the details. And a new interactive feature enables fans to make their own pre-match likelihood-to-win predictions, then see them side by side with an aggregated global fan prediction and the IBM Watson AI prediction.

AI Highlights are also returning to The Championships in 2022. The solution uses AI to analyze crowd noise, match action, reactions of the crowd and players, and match statistics for thousands of hours of video to automatically produce two-minute highlights reels, which the Wimbledon content team then reviews and publishes. The AI-powered process takes minutes as opposed to hours or days with the previous manual process.

For the 2022 Championships, the Wimbledon team is aiming to attract and deliver increased participation across its platforms, as well, with a target of 28 million views on social platforms, 17 million on its digital platforms and 2.2 million through the personalized logged-in experience, myWimbledon. It’s also looking to attain third-party coverage, with 110 million views on TV, 209 million through digital publishers and 244 million through social publishers.

Future collaboration

Wimbledon stadium from outside at night

The collaborative relationship between the AELTC and IBM continues to open the way to new areas of innovation. “We’ve just scratched the surface of digital transformation,” says Jinks. “We’ve got ambitious growth plans for our online retail business. We put in a new platform two years ago for our online shop, and we want to grow that as well. It is all about where technology can help that growth agenda.”

“IBM is taking a leading role in a very active workstream exploring the next set of data we could be capturing,” he continues. “We’re exploring questions like, ‘How could AI do more to automate our data capture workflow?’ ‘What other insights could we get from the data we’re capturing beyond Power Index?’ It’s those tennis insights that will fuel the growth for new audiences. Data is driving everything in sports today, so we need to take that to the next level. Those are the things we’re focusing on.”

The relationship between IBM and the AELTC is truly a win-win enterprise. “In creating the future vision for the AELTC and IBM, we will continue to work out areas of alignment that are mutually beneficial and interesting,” says Willis. “There is a shared appreciation and passion for the quality of both organizations, the quality of what we deliver, but also the incredible opportunity ahead of us.

“We’ve delivered an extraordinary amount since our innovation program launched 11 years ago,” she concludes. “But as our brand positioning says, in pursuit of greatness, there’s always more to do, and we’ll always keep moving forward.”

All England Lawn Tennis Club logo
About All England Lawn Tennis Club

Known simply as “Wimbledon,” The Championships is the oldest of tennis’s four Grand Slams and one of the world’s highest-profile sporting events. Organized by the All England Lawn Tennis ClubExternal Link and based in London, Wimbledon has been a global sporting and cultural institution since 1877.

Solution components
All England Lawn Tennis Club logo
About All England Lawn Tennis Club

Known simply as “Wimbledon,” The Championships is the oldest of tennis’s four Grand Slams and one of the world’s highest-profile sporting events. Organized by the All England Lawn Tennis ClubExternal Link and based in London, Wimbledon has been a global sporting and cultural institution since 1877.

Solution components