2020 US Open a grand slam for remote fans

The USTA and IBM deliver an all-digital US Open experience
by Michelle Cloutier
5-minute read
Ashe Stadium interior

For 29 years, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) has worked with IBM, its official technology partner, to deliver insights and experiences for the US Open Tennis Championships, a Grand Slam tournament that takes place in Flushing Meadows, New York, each September.

But 2020 would prove to be a very different year.

As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated in the US in the spring, early planning gave way to wondering whether the tournament would be held, with or without fans, at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

In early June, the planning team received the news: the tournament was on, but no spectators would be in attendance. In fact, the USTA mandated that as few people as possible would be onsite.

“Without an onsite fan base, we had to shift pretty quickly to the fully-remote fan scenario, which really made us look at every page of all of our digital platforms,” says Brian Ryerson, Director of Digital Product Management at the USTA. “And we had to figure out how to do that without actually being face-to-face in one room.”

Close-up of hands holding tablet featuring US Open logo

An interactive experience for nearly

10 million

fans around the globe

Delivered in just

12 weeks

Now that we have these capabilities and can deliver them at scale across any type of platform, I think the fan engagement features that we built for 2020 will persist and evolve.
Kirsten Corio
Managing Director of Ticketing, Hospitality and Digital Strategy, United States Tennis Association

Although IBM and the USTA had previously developed extensive digital content, some elements of the digital fan experience would not work in 2020. One feature, called AI Highlights, relied on crowd reaction to live matches. Other features relied on match data from tournaments leading up to US Open to generate insights.

Kirsten Corio, Managing Director of Ticketing, Hospitality and Digital Strategy for the US Open at the USTA, notes, “Although daunting, our task in 2020 was really no different from prior years in that the mission of our digital properties is to deliver the tournament to the world.” And in 2020, the world was filled with sports-starved fans looking for content.”

Woman holding tablet with Match Insights application
Hand holding smartphone with Open Questions application
We quickly realized that we had a lot of operational efficiencies having previously moved many of our systems to the hybrid cloud. We were able to gain more access to more data and more insights than we did when we everything was onsite.
Brian Ryerson
Director of Digital Product Management, United States Tennis Association
Bringing the US Open home
We quickly realized that we had a lot of operational efficiencies having previously moved many of our systems to the hybrid cloud. We were able to gain more access to more data and more insights than we did when we everything was onsite.
Brian Ryerson
Director of Digital Product Management, United States Tennis Association

Working virtually, consultants from IBM iX®, a division of IBM® Global Business Services®, and members of the US Open digital strategy team collaborated about how to create a rich, interactive fan experience for nearly 10 million fans around the globe. Although some elements of previous years’ experiences had to be shelved for the time being, the team quickly found ways to engage even the most casual tennis fan.

The tournament had moved many of its applications and workloads to the cloud over the years. Using the Red Hat® OpenShift® on IBM Cloud® container platform simplifies the management of numerous applications and services that draw on data from multiple sources. Applications are built in containers and workloads are run in a hybrid cloud environment. The scoring, staging and publishing systems run in a private cloud environment, while IBM Watson® APIs and other services are drawn from the IBM public cloud.

Operating in the hybrid cloud environment with Red Hat OpenShift also helped support the remote operation of the digital production team. This included statisticians working in Jacksonville, Florida, instead of courtside, and the team publishing content to the US Open app, website and blog who worked from dozens of locations from New York to Atlanta both before and during the tournament.

The hybrid cloud environment streamlined the creation and delivery of new digital features. The team used the IBM Garage™ Methodology to collaborate and co-create with the USTA to deliver novel content that would engage both the hardcore tennis fan as well as the casual viewer looking for live sports action.

One of the flagship deliverables for the 2020 tournament was a new application called Match Insights with Watson. Corio describes it as an AI-driven cheat sheet for fans. “Match Insights uses the natural language processing (NLP) technology behind the IBM Watson Discovery service to mine mountains of information about players — including articles, expert-driven profiles and blogs — to create a picture of an upcoming match for fans,” she says.

Ryerson notes that Match Insights isn’t just facts and figures. “It includes anecdotal information about the players, such as what their story is, where they’re from, how they got to where they are, what their ranking is, and so on,” he says. “All that definitely adds a different way for fans to connect to the players and to what’s happening on court.”

Another new offering for 2020 was the Open Questions with Watson online debate feature on the US Open website.

“We know that sports fans love to debate,” says Corio. “So we used AI to facilitate those debates.”

Through a series of tennis-related questions and video clips — such as “Was Evert vs. Navratilova the greatest rivalry of all time?” or “Who is the best men’s tennis player ever?” — fans could engage and debate in real time. By using IBM Watson technology to analyze multiple information sources as well as the quality of the debater’s arguments, IBM Watson technology turned information into insights to serve up a simple summary for each debate.

Without in-person specters, a crucial aspect of the event was missing — the noise from the crowd. Fan noise encourages players from the stands and provides an auditory cue to those watching at home that the action is heating up. To solve for this, the team developed AI Sounds, a custom sound bed for the in-stadium experience that leverages the AI highlights from the past years, capturing video footage and ranking the excitement level of each clip. The AI technology classified specific crowd reactions, including the crowd roar, and gave each clip a crowd reaction score, then dynamically served up those sounds to be used in-stadium and by the ESPN producers at their discretion.

Digital US Open declared a winner

Thanks to their long experience working together, the IBM iX and US Open digital teams were able to pivot to tackle the formidable challenge of working remotely to deliver an all-digital fan experience for the US Open in just 12 weeks.

“We had been talking for a while about how to advance towards a hybrid remote production environment, slowly moving to fewer people onsite,” says Corio. “We had to rip the Band-Aid off this year. The fact that it occurred, not only seamlessly and without any sort of hiccup whatsoever, but also even more efficiently than we had been able to do in the past, was really just an absolute breakthrough for us.”

The IBM hybrid cloud environment enabled the production team to quickly move to the remote working environment. “We quickly realized that we had a lot of operational efficiencies having previously moved many of our systems to the hybrid cloud,” says Ryerson. “We were able to gain more access to more data and more insights than we did when we everything was onsite. And we were able to create new and exciting content for this year.”

Furthermore, according to Ryerson, with Red Hat OpenShift tying everything together, video and photo production proved faster while remote. The team was also able to deliver a live blog on the US Open website. “During the tournament, there are so many matches happening that it’s hard to really understand by looking at a scoreboard what match you should be paying attention to and why it’s significant,” he says. “So for us to be able to provide an editorial voice was a big win for us.”

The overarching aim of the digital team was to draw new fans to the sport, engage casual fans more deeply and keep veteran fans interested. Match Insights with Watson was especially helpful to casual fans wishing to get to know the players better. It also served to introduce new players to long-time fans during the tournament, which often featured relative newcomers facing more seasoned players due to the many schedule adjustments made during this year’s US Open. Open Questions kept long-time fans engaged in an ongoing debate supported by AI-driven facts. And the AI Sounds solution helped both players on court and fans at home feel some of the excitement of having live spectators in the stands.

While the technology offerings were developed for the unique 2020 US environment, Corio hopes to build on them in the future. “Not only did we deliver and produce a new NLP and AI-powered experience for tennis fans who couldn’t be onsite, but we also pushed the art of the possible,” she says. “Now that we have these capabilities and can deliver them at scale across any type of platform, I think the fan engagement features that we built for 2020 will persist and evolve.”

US Open logo
About the United States Tennis Association US Open

Founded in 1881, the USTAExternal Link is the national governing body for the sport of tennis in the US. The US OpenExternal Link is the association’s Grand Slam tournament, first held in 1968 — the year that Arthur Ashe won the men’s singles title. The US Open is played each September at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, New York.

Solution components
US Open logo
About the United States Tennis Association US Open

Founded in 1881, the USTAExternal Link is the national governing body for the sport of tennis in the US. The US OpenExternal Link is the association’s Grand Slam tournament, first held in 1968 — the year that Arthur Ashe won the men’s singles title. The US Open is played each September at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens, New York.

Solution components