THE BLOG

How Technology Is Bringing Sports Fans Closer to All the Action

08/07/2014 13:46 | Updated 07 September 2014
  • Sam Seddon Responsibility for managing the end to end delivery of the solutions that IBM provides within sports

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) opened its gates last month to welcome in spectators from across the world. Known simply as The Championships, Wimbledon strives to provide a feeling of "Tennis in an English country garden" while maintaining its position as the leading tennis tournament in the world.

Over the last 25 years, Wimbledon has gone through a huge amount of change, not only has a technological revolution happened on the court but arguably a bigger revolution has happened off court. In 2014 the technology on offer has enabled fans all around the globe to use social media and analytics to enjoy the two weeks of tennis like never before with more insights into the players and the game than previously enjoyed - but is this a good thing you may ask? We wanted to explore what this development means for tennis and sport.

Arguably, social media has brought fans closer to sport than anything else, allowing people all around the world to engage with each other. With players willing to share their experiences, fans can now get closer to their hero's. This sense of creating a global community through social media creates interest in the sport whether it is an engaging battle on court 17 or a major line-up on Centre Court.

From a player point of view, social media is being increasingly used to promote their brand, themselves. Take Maria Sharapova and her active use of Twitter to highlight her brand endorsements e.g. Evian reaching her 1.14M followers. Also, her own confectionery product SugarPova which she promotes through her own handle but which also has its own with over 9,000 followers.

From a pure sporting point of view success on the court has a massive impact on social media. Prior to his epic defeat of Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios had 18,000 followers and now it is up to 72,000 and rising. This social media explosion can have a major impact on turning a player from a relative unknown outside the tennis circuit into a household name which in turn will affect commercial interests and their personal brand value. Reviewing an athlete's social profile and understanding what type and volume of endorsements will come through that channel is now a core part of any organisations' analysis of "talent" before signing a contract.

Players are also actively courting their celebrity fans like never before. One of the most notable examples from the Championships was Rafael Nadal's "selfie" with Hollywood actor Hugh Jackman, the picture was shared on Twitter 3,300 times - actively pushing up Nadal's social media profile for that day and being shared all around the globe.

There is of course a serious commercial side to social media which is becoming a larger aspect of all sports.

The Championships of 2014 are the most technically advanced to date and can be seen to represent the changing way we consume sport. It is now not enough to simply watch the match, fans want to know as much as the players, we are hungry for information, for data and for insights. What is the impact of this new found consumption?

It almost goes without saying that coaches and players are the biggest consumers of data, best summed up in the Hollywood film Moneyball which stars Brad Pitt. Whether it is for improving performance, measuring your opponent or reducing injury - data and analytics can very much be the difference between winning and losing. Does this give sides an unfair advantage, does it take away from the players' ability to react as the game unfolds and do we get into a data "arms race" with sport getting ever more technically advanced? My argument would be no. Sport is like any business. It is all about finding those incremental gains to put you one step ahead.

For fans the benefit is in seeing the best talent available take to the field to provide the most engaging entertainment possible. They are now able to engage like never before and have access to every facet of a player's performance. For example, Wimbledon benefits from an online analytics platform called SlamTracker providing fans with real time data from each of the 19 courts. The platform uses predictive analytics to look at the key performance indicators each player needs to meet in order to win. To give a sense of scale, the platform measures 41 million data points from eight grand slam tournaments. What this now does is hugely empowering for fans as they can discuss the match with added insight. They can engage with each other on social media - in effect, it makes "arm-chair coaches" out of all of us.

The sporting purists might look at the wealth of data on offer when watching a football, rugby or tennis match and think that it takes away from our simple enjoyment of watching athletes battling it out. Are we too concerned with passing stats, shot speed and ball position that we are no longer enjoying the skill of the game?

For me, these are all aspects of the changing nature of sport. With so much investment in sport, like in any business, it needs to progress and keep on innovating to keep that money flowing. Analytics can change the relationship between the individual and the fan. Knowing the subtleties, strategies and fine margins between winning and losing helps us appreciate the athletic skill even more and raise our enjoyment of the spectacle even further. Using data to provide insight and entertainment brings the fans closer to the sport which has to be a benefit to everyone involved.