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Advanced analytics helps US Open build online sweet spot

Advanced analytics play a key role in combining entertainment, sports and business at the US Open.

In late August and early September, tennis fans flood into Queens for the US Open, the fourth of four tournaments comprising the Grand Slam each year. But for those unable to make the trek, the United States Tennis Association has created an increasingly popular alternative:

During the two weeks of competition, the website will experience its annual peak in Internet traffic. Last year, that meant hosting 51 million visits during the tournament alone. The challenge for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) is to create a destination rather than a visitors' center -- to provide more than match scores and schedules, but to also serve up images, news stories, videos and a whole bunch of statistics.

To meet that kind of demand in such a small window of time, the USTA has had to dip its toes into a new world of data, advanced analytics, cloud computing and mobile technology.

"Our goal is to be innovative leaders for the sport of tennis, for sports in general, and even for entertainment because the US Open is where sports and entertainment come together," said Phil Green, senior director of advanced media for the USTA, the national governing body for the sport.

Advanced analytics requires clean data

The USTA, in partnership with IBM, has been providing a statistical look at the US Open through its SlamTracker application for more than five years now. The metrics are served up to fans in an online dashboard. But, in those early days, the data was basic, or too "surfacey," as John Kent, technology manager for sports sponsorships at IBM, called it. Plus, it didn't take advantage of the trove of statistics owned by the Grand Slam and held in disparate systems.

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"[Other sports media outlets] have the scores, but not the deep statistics," said Kent, adding that just a few years ago, these statistics were all maintained in Excel spreadsheets. "We wanted a richer, deeper form."

Last year, Kent and his team aimed to hit that target by diving into the data trove and applying more advanced analytics techniques, such as real-time updates, visualizations and prediction to it. That led to the SlamTracker's "Momentum" feature, which maps player momentum and visualizes key turning points for the match, according to an IBM press release.

In 2011, IBM also began mining and cleansing historical data from the last seven years of grand slams to construct its "Keys to the Match" -- a prediction of the top-three indicators each player needs to hit to ensure a solid performance. To produce that feature alone, IBM had to analyze 39 million data points, Kent said.

The US Open site also embraces social media -- and the analytics that go along with it. An analysis of tweets, for example, can reveal player popularity, tone and sentiment of a match, according to Kent.

Mobility and the cloud

For all of the data to be made available to fans -- no matter the circumstances -- the USTA had to embrace mobile technology and cloud computing. Beginning in 2009, the USTA began releasing mobile applications, first for smartphones and then for tablets, building on the program year after year. This year, for example, the USTA launched an application designed specifically for the iPad.

"We leverage the platform for the way it was meant to be used," Green said. "So, your experience on your computer is different than your experience on the iPhone or Android app. And that's different than your iPad app."

To deliver that gadget-specific experience, IBM and USTA not only took into consideration the platform features, such as screen size, but also how fans use each platform. With a tablet, Green said, users tend to hold the device in one hand while multitasking. That's different from a desktop experience, which involves using a mouse to move from site to site.

But a bigger leap of faith for the USTA may have been embracing cloud computing. While Green spoke of the tennis association's faith in IBM products, his introduction to cloud computing came on the winds of a hurricane.

"The cloud really came to the forefront for us last year," Green said. "Hurricane Irene was coming … the eye was headed our way. We were hearing things like 'no power for days.'"

IBM sat members of the USTA down and described how it planned to use the cloud as a way to maintain service to US Open customers, switching over to the cloud just before the hurricane hit. And it worked, Green said.

Today, IBM uses a private cloud with three hosting sites in three different time zones for the US Open, not unlike the redesign of the Wimbledon site. The environment is highly virtualized, according to Kent, which enables IBM to move workloads in the case of disaster or even just to update machinery.

"It's not disaster recovery," Kent said. "It's disaster avoidance."

Plus, he said, the cloud's architecture gives the ability to scale up for the influx of visitors it hosts during the two weeks of competition, but also to scale down once the tournament has ended.

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