Wimbledon is a strange competition. Tennis’ most coveted prize stands as something of a relic in international sport, a throwback in a world that has otherwise moved on. In a very English and somewhat curious way, the competition has retained quirks of tradition, from the suppliers of the ball boys and ball girls to the lack of signage around the arenas. Male players may no longer wear trousers, prize money has ballooned and the carbon fibre material used to make modern tennis rackets didn’t exist in 1877 when the ‘Wimbledon Championship' was first held, but the heart of the competition is largely without change.
A great deal about the worlds oldest tennis tournament hasn’t budged. Wimbledon is the only major competition today for which participants are required to wear white and play on grass, and the tournament is still technically hosted by the All England Club themselves - as opposed to a national governing body - one of the country’s most exclusive clubs. Only 375 full memberships exist, and short of being a winner of the competition or a member of the royal family entry is near on impossible. The club is quiet the majority of the year round, but for a two-week frenzy near the beginning of summer, a quiet area of south west London hosts nearly half a million spectators.
Perhaps conversely, though, the competition has long been forward thinking with regard to its use of new technology. Though behind cricket in the adoption curve, Wimbledon brought in Hawk-Eye refereeing technology to assist umpires in 2007, giving each player a maximum of three incorrect challenges per set. Tennis is the only sport currently using a challenge system (the umpires decide when the technology is used in a cricket match), but there have been murmurs that soccer is set to follow suit. Off the court advancements have been just as impressive, though, and Wimbledon is one of the better spectator sports both in the arena and out.
In 1992, IBM devised a system allowing courtside specialists to collate match statistics almost instantly using data entry keypads. Fast forward two decades, and 2012 sees the introduction of Live @ Wimbledon, an online stream showing live tennis, highlights and other clips, with real-time stats available. This was then transposed onto a dedicated Wimbledon app just a year later, with both spectators and fans at home able to keep up with scores, statistics and video. The technology itself is by no means groundbreaking but where some sports and competitions have been incredibly slow to update their digital offerings, Wimbledon stands as a gleaming example.
Firstly, it’s a matter of logistics - Centre Court can accommodate just 15,000 spectators. With so few able to watch the main event live, the experience from elsewhere takes on a special significance. Sam Seddon, IBM Client Executive for Wimbledon, said: ’Wimbledon’s mission is to be the best tennis tournament in the world so brand quality is very important to them; you either come here and experience it in person or you experience it on digital. To put this into context, only 10 million people have visited the Championships since 1990 but last year alone there were 63 million visits to the website, so you could argue that the true expression of the Wimbledon brand if you can’t attend can only be found on Wimbledon.com.’
In the 130th edition of the competition, which Andy Murray emerged victorious from this month, the technology snatching the headlines is IBM’s Watson. The machine learning platform digested millions of conversations on the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram over the course of the tournament to identify trends even before they properly explode. ‘During last year's final we were analysing about 400 tweets a second,’ says IBM's Sam Seddon. ‘Expand that out into Facebook, Instagram and more long-form content, and that's a lot of data. We can come up with insights much faster than humans can and inform the media team so they can decide what kind of content they should be offering.’ Essentially, Watson allows Wimbledon’s team to lead trends rather than follow them, to offer relevant content to their users and to, in turn, get the edge over the competition in terms of fan engagement.
The digital transition at Wimbledon isn’t entirely complete; wifi is still not offered in the grounds and the mobile coverage is patchy at best, but the competition is one of the most digitally astute in world sport. The website is updated over 100,000 times a day and, if the use of Watson can provide real insight and relevancy to the site’s users, Wimbledon can further establish itself as a digital innovator, however at odds with its traditional atmosphere this may seem.