Alexandra Willis, Head of Digital at the All England Lawn Tennis Club explains, striking the balance between technology and tradition.
The oldest tennis tournament in the world, and some say the most prestigious, began on June 27th. This year, whether you’re watching courtside with champagne or clutching a plastic cup of Pimm’s on Henman Hill (or is it Murray Mound?), you’ll probably be using technology that had no presence in tennis only a few years ago.
So what is this technological intervention bringing to tennis? What does it mean for the audience, both present and remote? And how does such a famously traditional event hit the right balance? We caught up with Alexandra Willis, Head of Digital and Content at the All England Lawn Tennis Club to find out.
How do you keep the balance between tradition and new technology?
For Wimbledon, balancing tradition and innovation is absolutely at the core. You’ll see state of the art technology done in a traditional way, a way that’s sympathetic to what Wimbledon and the brand is about. The centre court roof, for example, is the most extraordinary piece of technology. The No. 1 court roof in 2019 will be the same. What we’ve done with some of our digital platforms is an advanced use of technology. Our attitude and approach to data analytics and social is at the core of what we’re trying to do, and it always has to be done in the right way - in the Wimbledon way. You wouldn’t really notice the technology because it is seamlessly integrated.
First and foremost, Wimbledon is an event to watch tennis. Tennis will always be the priority. We are also very proud of the way our grounds look. There’s a saying: ‘coming to Wimbledon should be like visiting an English country garden.’ With that in mind, we’re not going to go down the paths of other events and start having giant screens everywhere. We’re not looking at connectivity and fan engagement from that perspective. The geography of the grounds also makes mobile signals and the potential for public WiFi challenging. We will want to improve connectivity over time, and we’re evaluating the right way to do that, whether that’s by boosting the mobile signal, which we did this year, or going to full public WiFi. Being Wimbledon, we want to make sure that when we do it, it works perfectly.
Do you see yourselves using live streaming services like Periscope and Meerkat in the future?
I think at the heart of our social media strategy we look to maximize the best use of each social media platform, and not be tempted to put the same content everywhere. It would be very easy for us to do a Periscope of the hill, and a Snapchat, and not really play to the strengths of each technology, but we’re intent on using technology in a strategic manner to capture the real time moments that people would be most interested to tune into. I think that’s where Periscope’s strength is: revealing what fans normally wouldn’t be able to see, or couldn’t be brought live via other platforms. The arrivals of the champions at the champions’ dinner, the winners’ walk out on to the balcony to celebrate, the engraving of the trophy… these are moments we’ve never captured before. That’s where we see the benefit.
One issue surrounding live streaming services is whether rights are being violated. Is Wimbledon going to be more strict about using devices in the future?
This comes back to the point that Wimbledon is first and foremost is about watching tennis, and in our code of conduct we ask spectators not to use their phones continuously during matches. There is a balance because, somebody sharing a picture of themselves on centre court before matches is a fantastic way of promoting the tournament and promoting the brand, so we’re not going to stop people from sharing because it’s important that they do, but we want to make sure that they’re being respectful.
How do you think technology will allow you to connect with fans globally?
One thing we started to do and would like to do more of it is localise the content we put out. We’ve been posting in Japanese on Facebook, which was geotargeted to Japan. In an ideal world, if you had the Wimbledon app and it was able to identify which country you were in, we would serve you bespoke content. Twitter is harder to geo target, so as much as I would love to have different language twitter feeds, I would also hate to be spamming the entire globe in different languages. It’s very important to remain focused on the audiences that you’re trying to reach.
Are there specific features of tennis that mix well with technology?
One of the challenges (but also the opportunity) is that there are a huge number of events taking place. In the first two days alone there are 128 matches each day. As we become more nimble, we would like to have broadcast coverage of every court, and therefore data and statistics output from every court. Then theoretically we can ping someone in Taiwan and say, a player has started playing in court 19. Do you want to watch it or do you want to follow the match on Livescore? That’s both the challenge and the opportunity.
All interviews were conducted by Ken Saito, MBA in Football Industries at the University of Liverpool. This interview is part of a wider body of research: The Future of Sport.