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Tennis is a game that thrives on tradition. Part of the appeal for many fans is the history and prestige attached to major tournaments such as the U.S. Open.
But this leaves the USTA, which puts on America's most significant annual tournament, in a tough position: How can an organization that relies on tradition stay true to its history while embracing new opportunities? Analytics in sports is becoming big business and failing to act on new possibilities could be a big mistake for any organization.
For Nicole Jeter West, senior director of ticketing and digital strategy at the USTA, it's all about balancing tradition against what fans today are looking for and expect.
"We start with what is going to help that fan have a better experience," she said. "If we always consider that, we won't get to a point where we're trying to force technology down their throats."
The USTA has been busy implementing new technology and making data analysis a more central part of its product. Each year during the US Open the organization works with IBM to collect and analyze greater amounts of data.
Today it looks at data on match scores, stats, player movements and social media chatter. All of this is collected and analyzed using IBM's standard industry technologies, like its DB2 database, SmartCloud, SPSS statistical software and Watson. This allows the USTA to determine things like how a certain player was able to beat another during their previous matchups. This kind of information is provided to fans, journalists and broadcasters. This year's new addition was a mobile app that gave fans access to stats and analysis on each match.
The USTA doesn't just use analytics to get information out. It also uses it to keep operations running smoothly during the U.S. Open. Jeter West said the organization uses Watson technology to predict spikes in server traffic based on things like who is playing and the round they are playing in the tournament. This helps the USTA manage its yearly transition from what Jeter West described as a small business to an international organization and back again.
"About 50 weeks out of the year we operate as most businesses do," Jeter West said. "We have pretty steady traffic without a lot of peaks or spikes. During these two weeks we see unpredictable spikes. The unpredictable nature of that traffic makes it critical to allocate resources smartly."
While this kind of technology may not revolutionize the way the game is played or broadcast, it is helping to modernize behind-the-scenes operations. Mary Jo Fernandez, a former tennis star who covers the game for ESPN and CBS Sports, said during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference in Boston that it helps engage fans at a deeper level and steers broadcasters' commentary more intelligently. It also enables players' coaches to approach the game more objectively. When they have access to the data, they are able to base their strategies on fuller samples and pick up on things they may have missed without the data.
"It's doing a lot of the work for [the coaches]," Fernandez said. "If you can show this to the player they say, 'Ok, I believe you.'"
Ultimately, tennis is still a contest between two individuals to see who can react faster and endure fatigue longer, just as it was during the days of Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, John McEnroe and Billie Jean King. But analytics in sports is helping to bring the game into the 21st century and make it relevant to a new generation of fans.
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