Tennis fans get high-tech treat at US Open

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At this year’s U.S. Open, IBM has been serving up a wide range of social media-focused technology geared to engage the tournament’s countless fans worldwide. Whether sitting courtside to watch Serena Williams in a match, or tweeting on a tablet from the comfort of home, the tournament’s fans are continuously monitoring live updates from the two-week grand slam tournament, which started on Monday.

IBM has been working closely with the United States Tennis Association to make sure all of this runs smoothly. This week the 25-year collaborators unveiled their mobile strategy for making fans across the globe feel a part of the action from Flushing, Queens.

“Over 200 countries and territories are watching (the tournament) on broadcast. Even more than that are on their mobile devices, on iPads, on tablets, on desktops,” said Nicole Jeter West, the USTA’s senior director of ticketing and digital strategy, during an IBM press event held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.

Key to this social interaction are the IBM-developed U.S. Open mobile apps and website. This year, IBM included new data sets that enable real-time match updates, player statistics, and detailed historical information. The data sets and enhanced visual elements were powered by IBM SlamTracker analytics technology, which includes information as detailed as ball and player movement on the court, and can even track how far a player runs during a match. According to an IBM press release, SlamTracker works by analyzing over 41 million data points from eight past years of tournament data. From this data, the analytics system designates three “performance indicators” that could potentially impact a player’s game. The technology processes all of this information in real-time.

At the event, representatives from both organizations emphasized that this is all to “grow the game of tennis.”

The quickly-processed data needed to grow the game is powered by updated cloud technology. Over the course of the tournament’s run, traffic to the U.S. Open’s website and mobile apps grows increasingly large. Last year, there were a record-breaking 419 million page views on the U.S. Open website, with 178 million views coming from mobile devices and 41.7 million from tablets. The predictive cloud technology used by the USTA helps manage sudden web traffic spikes.

Trying to make sure this works takes months of planning and preparation. In many ways a year-long process – IBM and the USTA meet for a post-mortem directly after each year’s tournament, and begin planning in earnest for the U.S. Open around February of each year — testing the technologies involves a great deal of trial and error.

“The concepting phase is very collaborative. We see what is working, what isn’t and what’s trending,” said John Kent, a program manager for IBM Worldwide Sponsorship Marketing, told

Kent said that both teams spend about two to three week at minimum on simulation testing. This involves synthesizing the tournament experience by using exact scores from the previous year. They run through possible scenarios like an unexpected player withdrawal or changes to the tournament’s schedule to ensure that the tech can respond quickly to real-time changes. Jeter West called it a “rehearsal.”

“We look at it from the user’s perspective, and then also from the sponsor’s perspective,” she said. “We have to make sure that Mercedes Benz’s logo is on – we are looking at another layer of testing on top of just the user experience.”

Both Kent and Jeter West emphasized that their jobs require a lot of guess-work on what platforms will be successful. In the ever-shifting tech world where trends spark fast and then flicker away, IBM and the USTA have to make sure they find relevant ways to engage their audience.

Part of that involves looking at potential successful strategies for future tournaments. Kent said higher-quality 4K-resolution video might be an attractive tool in the future. While the technology isn’t quite ready yet, being able to bring viewers the most enhanced visuals is part of the U.S. Open experience, he added.

Jeter West said that telemetry, automated and fast data transmission, and the constantly flowing data generated from a match will continue to be a big factor in her organization’s partnership with IBM.

“We are able to get player movement and then take that movement, convert it to data, and utilize that. We are always assessing how we can better realize that and bring it to our fans,” she said. “The question is: How can we take that information and make it useful?”