Sept. 8, 2007 -- There are four Grand Slam tennis tournaments played throughout the year, starting seaside in Australia, moving on to the red clay of France and to the strawberries and cream culture of the All England Club's Wimbledon, before ending in a two week battle in the concrete jungle of New York City.
Watching the promotional commercials for Tennis' 2007 U.S. Open, you might think you landed on MTV, with attractive, fit young men and women in tailored outfits, each pumping one fist in time to the latest popular dance club song while holding a racket in the other hand.
This is not an accident. The U.S. Open hopes to use its high profile two-week tournament to create future fans and players of the game. And high technology is at the forefront of its plans.
The U.S. Open is the largest annually attended sporting event in the world, hosting more than 660,000 tennis fans over a two-week period each year around Labor Day and ending this Sunday.
It All Starts in the Palm
For a game that hasn't changed much since it was invented in 1873, tennis is starting to become rather high-tech. Gone are the days of player tirades over blown calls, thanks to an electronic replay system that allows players a limited number of challenges.
And for scheduling, players each call into a restricted telephone bank where by entering their pin code they are told the day and time of their next match. The call is documented on a screen of the head referee's computer and is one of the features developed as part of the 16-year relationship between IBM and the U.S. Open.
"Every year throughout our 16-year partnership, IBM and the USTA have developed innovative ways to help make the U.S. Open the special event it has become," said Rick Singer, director of worldwide sponsorship marketing for IBM. "Delivering a reliable, robust IT solution allows the USTA to concentrate on building value for the U.S. Open brand around the world, meet revenue objectives and promote tennis in the United States."
A high-tech infrastructure is what makes all this instant data available. About 100 yards down the hall from the plush-carpeted player's lounge, where Maria Sharapova, the 20-year-old Russian champion could be found recently psyching herself up for a match by listening to her iPod, and where other players relaxed playing Nintendo Wii and Sony Playstation 3 video games, sat a nondescript high-tech data center that would rival that of any Fortune 500 company.
An IBM engineer designed a device for each court's umpire, using off-the-shelf parts and running on a version of the Palm OS. (The same devices scan visitors' tickets as they enter the stadium each day, making counterfeiting nearly impossible.).
Each chair umpire is provided with a unit at the start of a match. As play begins, the umpire enters the results of each point. That data is instantly transmitted to the giant stadium scoreboards and remote screens in the food areas, compiled into databases for media access, automatically created into TV graphics, and presented live on USOpen.org.
Jeffrey Volk, the director of advanced media for the United States Tennis Association -- the ultimate webmaster of USOpen.org -- said the formula is simple.
"If the fans can't get to the grounds to watch a match, we want to bring the experience to their desktop, and that includes real-time statistics for 16 courts, 12 hours of live radio streams a day, two professionally packaged highlight shows at 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. and always available on demand."
Not for Profit
Although its online efforts rival any by Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association or the National Football League, unlike the big three, the United States Tennis Association doesn't charge for any of its content. Besides IBM, there are 15 other online sponsors.
Although it raises a small fortune off the television rights, soldout tickets, membership dues and merchandising, the USTA is a not-for-profit marketing, entertainment and media group with the sole goal of promoting and developing the growth of the sport of tennis in the United States.
By giving the excitement of the sport away to anyone with a Web connection, the USTA hopes to encourage community participation and develop the stars of tomorrow.
No matter how long it takes fans to arrive at Forrest Hills by the well traveled 7 subway train or the jam-packed Grand Central Parkway they should rest assured the USTA New Media group had a lot longer journey. The full-time group of 17 designers, writers, sales associates and editors work most of the year in their White Plains office preparing the infrastructure for the Web site USOpen.org. As August approaches, the team swells to 70 passionate tennis fans and new media experts that move to the tennis center and are constantly buzzing with activity, bringing the action to the Web for all those who can't make it to the matches.
By this Sunday, as the on-court champions are each awarded a minimum of $1.4 million, the tech team will have spent three weeks taking turns sleeping at the LaGuardia Airport Marriott, because between video, audio and text updates, USOpen.org is the site that never sleeps.
"If we do our job right, there will be 11 months of build up, the first week of the tournament we will smooth out some of the kinks, and by now we are cruising along," Volk said.
What was once a flashy catch-phrase promise of audio, video and real-time data delivered over the Internet is currently on full display on the U.S. Open site. In addition, there are video segments available called "Explore the Grounds With Murphy Jensen," "Player Interviews with Taylor Dent" and a daily press expert "Inside the Media Center." Photo slide shows, an interactive draw sheet (forecast of future opponents) and a widget for the desktop (let's hope your boss is a fan of tennis too).
And so far so good in 2007. Ticket sales are at an all-time high, and the early returns from Web traffic are up too. In the first week, there were 13 million unique visitors, a 5 percent increase from last year, spending an average of more than an hour each time they visited.
Such traffic gains require features, and that is what the advanced media team is constantly searching for. A new feature for 2007 that more than 8 million people downloaded was the interactive draw and live scoreboard that allows users to track players throughout the draw and see dynamically how the draw may unfold.
"It's this pleasurable mix of sport, business and new media that gets us up in the morning," Volk said. "We want every tennis fan to feel the action in person. And if not, the second best way is through our broadband content."