Ready, Set, Play!

Who knows me also knows that I love tennis; I’ve been playing this sport for the past 20 years, so naturally, I could not help myself but watch the US Open Tennis Tournament this past month. This tournament has been very different from the ones I saw before; not only did a women’s qualifier win the tournament for the first time in tournament history, but a new type of technology stepped into the court, making (in my opinion) the game even more enjoyable. There were three types of advancements in this tournament that Tennis Fans have never seen before: 

IBM Power Rankings with Watson:

The first piece of innovation I want to talk about is IBM Power Rankings with Watson, which are AI-powered daily rankings of player momentum used at the US Open for the first time this year. But what is it, and how different compared to the system that was in use before? The traditional tennis tour ranking system uses 52 weeks of data to understand and quantify player performance, but this year was different. IBM Power Rankings takes this one step further by focusing on a player’s most recent history. The technology uses advanced statistical analysis, Watson Discovery’s NLP capabilities, and the open IBM Cloud to analyze player performance data, mine media commentary, understand player momentum, and highlight its determination of the most compelling matchups. What this means is that earlier, you would look at tournaments and how a player performed over a particular period, but now IBM power rankings can read into more significant data, taking into consideration data coming from other sources that are not easily quantifiable.

Match Insights with Watson:

The second piece of technology is Match Insights with Watson: Watson uses Watson Discovery to create AI-generated fact sheets to help fans understand players and their rankings and quickly get up to speed ahead of every match during the tournament. I am excited about these two features is that IBM has helped fans understand what the data is saying about players ahead of upcoming matches with new features such as “Likelihood to Win,” “Ones to Watch,” and “Upset Alerts.”

US Open Fantasy Tennis:

The third and probably most exciting news is that this year, the US Open launched US Open Fantasy Tennis, including IBM Power Rankings and insights using IBM Watson Discovery. Fantasy Tennis is excellent news for fans as this is the first-ever fantasy experience for this Grand Slam. This new experience is a huge opportunity to engage fans more deeply and create a fantasy team that they can cheer on for the duration of the tournament. 

Adding AI to the US Open was a great opportunity for both fans and players to be more connected. A recent IBM survey found that two times more US adults surveyed report watching traditional sports on digital platforms during the pandemic (84%) compared to pre-pandemic (41%), and 60% of US adults surveyed said technologies like AI and cloud computing make sports more engaging to watch for fans. Considering the recent events and the fact that some fans decided to postpone traveling to New York City for the tournament, I believe that engaging tennis fans from all around the globe is the winning decision.

The partnership between IBM and the US Open is not new; in fact, the two have been partnering for the past 30 years. IBM has designed and developed the US Open app and website using a hybrid cloud to handle the vast amount of data coming from the US Open tournament. I am personally a big fan of technological integration into sports. It created a significant opportunity for both Players and Fans to be more connected and receive more accurate data. This point made me investigate how AI is used across other professional sports, and this is what I found: 

Cricket: AI can be used to improve the game’s strategy, while Machine Learning can predict match results accurately. Currently, AI is used in the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) and analyzes runouts.

Baseball:  AI is currently used to scout and recruit new players. Artificial Intelligence can collect relevant information about players, such as their speed and the angle they hit their bat. This information helps recruiters making the right decisions on incoming players.

Soccer: Currently using technologies like Goal Line Technology (GLT) and Video Assistant Referee (VAR) that have significantly improved the game’s efficiency by providing additional support to referees to make the right decisions. 

Basketball:  Many NBA teams are currently using AI as well. An example is HomeCourt, an AI app that can help basketball players improve their shooting precision.

The application of AI in sports has become very common in the last couple of years. Considering the positive impact of technology in sports, I believe this is only the beginning of AI and VR into both pro and recreational sports, making the games even more interesting.

12 comments

  1. Yana, thank you for this piece. I actually was at the US Open, so I might have a different perspective, as I was a fan focused on the court and the players rather than any tech features offered to us. I even can say, as an avid fan and player and former national soccer player, I don’t like technology taking over sports. I say this because sports are supposed to be spontaneous in real time, and decisions should be made as the game goes. AI predicting stats and wins brings up the interesting dynamic of additional ways to make revenue as well as creating new markets. AI supports the betting industry and also creates competition between the companies creating these platforms. So, although it is nice to see IBM taking predicting metrics a step further, as a fan, I don’t really know what this does for me. For those that need all the numbers they believe will allow them to make better choices, this is probably one of the greatest additions to sports.

  2. Hi Yana, interesting piece! I actually think there are two different use cases here for AI and analytics in sports. One is what you wrote about with IBM & Tennis, which is primarily consumer-facing, and designed to help make the game more interesting, and provide fun or exciting insights. AWS does something similar with NFL game broadcasts. I believe this consumer-facing stuff is more lip service than anything actually super meaningful.

    I think the other piece where AI/analytics happen in sports is much more secretive, with different teams in different sports trying to gain a competitive advantage with their teams of data scientists and analysts. We’ve seen fundamental changes in the way baseball managers and football coaches make decisions, based on data. Players are taught to swing with more of an uppercut now, because the analytics say that home run swings (Although higher risk) will net out more total runs. Coaches go for it on 4th down more often now because the analytics tell them that over the course of the season, it will be more favorable to do so.

    I personally feel that data-driven decisions, especially in baseball, take away from some of the important intangible and intuitive nuances of the game, but I get it, numbers don’t lie!

    1. Yana thanks for sharing, I think AI and analytics in sport are going no where! I anticipate that this is just the beginning. For example, our beloved Boston Red Sox have a “Baseball Research and Development” department that has over 24 members, this includes the likes of data analysts, data engineers and a data architect.

      I am not sure if it already exists but I can imagine athletes having their own “profile” similar to a MAX Prep profile (used for high school football rankings) that will be used by professional leagues and their teams for drafts and for signing and trading athletes. These profiles would highlight the strengths and weakness of athletes by looking at game stats, broadcasts/media reporting and video game footage. Perhaps with AI, athletes can be paired together to see if they would be compatible as teammates. It would be interesting to see if these profiles could include health information and what ramifications would be for doing so.

  3. Hi Yana, I think this is a great post. I knew that AI was taking a stronger part into sports but was unaware of any exact applications that are being used. So it was very enlightening to see how Watson is playing a part of the US Open and in tennis. I think the statistics and data being shown for each player is a great way for newer fans of the sport to see where everyone stands more quickly than having to catch every match or to read about the players separately.

    Also the prospect of fantasy sports finally coming to tennis seems long overdue and can hopefully have the same results that it has had with other sports. Appreciate you bringing attention to all of this.

  4. Love posts investigating the digital aspects of things students are interested in. Nice work!

  5. Digital transformation within the world of sports is an exciting thing to witness for sure. I think momentum is picking up within this space as well. Historically, I know shows like Sports Science would dive into new data that was collected digitally and I enjoyed hearing their insights. I think most platforms are realizing the significant value added to the viewers when digital data can be consumed and analyzed at increasing speeds. For me, I realized a major change was coming when I witnessed what the WHOOP fitness tracker data was able to communicate in real-time during a PGA event. I think Rory Mcilroy was teeing off and they showed his heart rate was above 130bpm! This blew me away, sure I could see a player’s heart rate going up while celebrating but from the outside, in bog moments these players look so calm and collected. The data being able to be digitized and communicated the way that it was allowed everyone to see that despite seeming calm, Rory’s heart rate jumps just like the rest of us when he’s getting ready for a big shot.

    1. Great post on an interesting topic! My hope is that Tennis adopting this digital trend will help to generate new uses cases and ideas that other top sports can leverage (see NFL, MLB, NBA, etc.)

      Sports science is also excellent early example of digital transformation in the sports world. For those of you who may not have seen it, it was show back in the late 2000s, sort of a cross-over between myth busters and traditional sports (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1129059/). However, at that time much of the work they were conducting was trivial and not employed at full scale. Fast-forward a decade+ and all major sports teams/leagues are trying to gain any advantage they can via training, efficiency, film study, etc.

  6. It’s pretty astonishing how much the digital data world has blown up in sports recently… You can’t watch a single NFL game without some sort of “AWS Breakdown” on how the trajectory of the ball and wind speed influenced the result of the play…. or something along those lines. I think the inclusion of data-driven insight in mainstream sports is an incredibly promising future, but I do also believe that we are not yet to the point of having very accurate data representation. I am a very big F1 racing fan, and they are constantly showing the tire degradation of the cars throughout the race. It has been so inaccurate that the announcers just overtly make fun of how bad the data can seem. A quick example would be AWS showing 90% degradation of a tire based on x,y,z metrics with only x amounts of lap life left… and yet the experts and announcers are able to quickly explain how the visual is quite misleading and the tire is fully expected to make it through many more laps than the AWS prediction. At least for certain sports or metrics, the AWS “analysis” seems to be more like marketing than actual analysis.

    Although that was a negative take on this topic, I am honestly very excited as this technology grows and becomes a more integral part of sports in general. Maybe that’s just the data nerd in me talking though!

  7. Thank you for sharing these insights. I have been a tennis fan for many years and hadn’t realized how many technological advancements the sport has developed and embraced. I’m especially excited to learn about fantasy tennis. I think there is a large opportunity for individual sports to embrace the fantasy sports world to drive engagement and attract new fans. I’m also curious how tennis will embrace digital gambling on people’s devices, but that is a conversation for another day.

    I’m happy you added notes on other sports adopting digital technologies. I think if professional sports don’t adopt technology at a rapid rate, they will fall behind their competitors in terms of fan engagement. You need to look no further than what happened to Major League Baseball from 2010 to 2015 when they gave the cold should to social media and the sport lost a whole generation of fans.

  8. Love your article Yana! Great title. I am also a big fan of tennis. US Open Fantasy Tennis is probably the best thing since the Hawk-Eye was introduced in 2001.

  9. Yana- great blog post! While I don’t avidly watch tennis I do enjoy watching sports. One of my favorite sports to watch is football and each year it seems like technology integration is added to the viewer’s experience. While I have only been to one Patriots game, I have been to many football games in my life. The fan experience at a game is always fun but viewing from home with the added technological integration into each play definitely makes the game more engaging than in person and easier to keep up with what is going on.

  10. Great post Yana and really great discussion here in the comments re: the use and “role” of technology in sports. To piggyback on Kayla’s point about the experience of Patriots game in person vs at home, I agree completely about the value-add of technology with football. I was always a baseball guy growing up and really wasn’t into football but the advent of graphic overlays really helped me appreciate the game more. So I could see AR really playing a big role in in-person sporting events as it could seamless overlay that information BUT also make it an optional experience for anyone that might find that added information to be distracting or detrimental to the experience. And in fact, this ties into my post from last week about smart glasses in that some models could partner with MLB or the NFL or what-have-you as an added incentive to adopt a particular manufactured pair of smartglasses.

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