Wimbledon and IBM use ‘explainable AI’ to engage casual tennis fans on digital platforms

Wimbledon and IBM use ‘explainable AI’ to engage casual tennis fans on digital platforms


  • IBM has been involved at Wimbledon for 33 years
  • New AI-driven capabilities will explain concepts behind data analysis

The All-England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and long-term technology partner IBM hope a series of new digital innovations for the 2022 Wimbledon Championships will engage more casual fans and familiarize them with emerging or lesser-known tennis players.

Wimbledon attracts many spectators who are not tennis fans, or even sports fans, especially in the UK, and its grounds are viewed as a nice day out as much as an elite sporting venue.

Over the past decade, IBM has expanded its data collection operation at Wimbledon to include new metrics, while using artificial intelligence (AI) to create new analytics features for the tournament’s broadcast and digital platforms.

But while avid tennis fans might appreciate the depth and range of statistical analysis on offer, much of this insight would be meaningless to casual viewers who only watch the sport once a year and know few players beyond Roger Federer, Andy Murray, or Rafael Nadal.

“We were trying to give [these more casual fans] all of this data and insight and statistics about a whole load of players that [they didn’t know about],” Alexandra Willis, communications and marketing director at the AELTC during a press event explained ahead of the tournament. “So, we thought that was a specific barrier to engagement for the broadest possible group of people.”

Accordingly, much of the focus over the past 12 months has been on how IBM’s AI technology can drive wider engagement. A new ‘win factors’ feature has been added to the match insight hub that will explain exactly how different factors explain player performance and the likelihood of a particular player winning a match or causing an upset.

These include conventional datapoints such as court surface, world ranking, head-to-head records, recent performance historic success, as well as media commentary with IBM using natural language processing (NLP) to analyze articles about each player.

“Tennis fans consume things in different ways,” added Kevin Farrar, sports partnership leader at IBM UK and Ireland. “There are some fans who are really interested in the deep statistics, but others are more interested in video or social content. So, we wanted to come up with more bite size elements.”

The hope is that this additional layer of insight will see fans interact with other AI-driven features such as the ‘power rankings’ and match predictions so they can find their new favorite players and return to the tournament on an annual basis, even when the likes of Roger Federer have retired.

“If we’ve encouraged consumers to become fans of a whole new set of players by giving them guidance on how they’re likely to perform and encourage them to make predictions, then we can give them personalised highlight reels based on these players whether it’s through email, the website, wherever they want to receive that content,” said Willis, explaining another new AI feature.

“We often talk about the role of innovation as being all about preserving the traditions of Wimbledon and making sure that they remain relevant for the future. It’s not about putting tradition and innovation in conflict with each other. It’s actually about making them work together in partnership.”

SportsPro says…

Wimbledon has long considered itself to be the most prestigious of tennis’s four Grand Slam tournaments and sees its technology and broadcast operations as a way of maintaining this status above anything else.

In the UK the AELTC has long eschewed more lucrative broadcast deals because the blanket coverage offered by the BBC helps establish the tournament as an event of national cultural importance – a position that also increases global appeal.

Wimbledon’s 33-year association with IBM is one of the longest and most successful tech partnership in the sports industry. Now, it is viewed as critical to engaging a younger and more global audience of tennis fans who may never step foot in the famous grounds but understand the prestige and tradition of the Championships.

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