Wimbledon, Big Data and Business Intuition

IBM SecondSight is being used at Wimbledon to track how players move on the court. Measuring and tracking balls and players in any dimension with real time analytics, its goal is to add a new dimension to understanding the science of tennis.

IBM SecondSight is being used at Wimbledon to track how players move on the court. Measuring and tracking balls and players in any dimension with real time analytics, its goal is to add a new dimension to understanding the science of tennis.

Image courtesy of Flickr user IBM.

There has been more than intuition, skill and experience at play during this opening week of Wimbledon. The most iconic court in the world — Centre Court — is queuing up some interesting analytics that are designed to help fans, commentators, coaches and players better understand — and virtually interact with — this Grand Slam tennis tournament.

Every serve, smash, swish and slam is being monitored, measured, analyzed and reported — in real time. The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC), in conjunction with IBM, has built two big data analysis systems for tennis that are designed to provide detailed player and tournament insights, and historical comparisons.

According to IBM’s Wimbledon site, the IBM SlamTracker utilizes predictive analytics to mine around 39 million historical data points, including how the tennis elite have played and won in Grand Slam matches over the past seven years. That data is combined with real time data that are mined as matches are played, to provide insights, in part, on what each player needs to do to one up a competitor.

Victoria Azarenka, the number 2 ranked women's player, serving earlier this week at Wimbledon.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Elentari86.

IBM SecondSight is still in trial phase. It was used last year on Court 18 to track how players move on the court. This year, SecondSight is moving on up to Centre Court. Using 3D cameras initially developed by the military, it measures and tracks balls and players in any dimension. SecondSight adds real time analytics from that 3D play to develop game insights. The goal, says IBM: add a new dimension to understanding the science of tennis.

Wimbledon isn’t alone in utilizing a vast array of data gathering technologies to track, measure, analyze and manipulate everything from athletic training regimens to the fan experience. Sports organizations from the PGA [Professional Golfer’s Association of America] to FIFA [Federation International de Football Association] are in on the data analytics game. But here’s the interesting thing: There are still a fair percentage of athletes, like executives in business, who weigh the scales more heavily toward intuition than data to win.

“At the PGA, a lot of the struggles are similar as when it first came up in baseball. Players have their intuition and they are turned off by analytics when it conflicts with that,” said Sean Martin, senior writer at Golfweek, during a golf analytics panel at this year’s MIT Sloan Analytics Conference. “Golf is a very traditional game. It’s viewed as an art form and not a sport. Some players are starting to see the value [of data analytics] but it’s still very much, ‘this is what I believe, this is what intuition tells me.’”

But in an increasingly data driven world, how much should decision makers — athletes and executives — rely on intuition versus analytics?

To get some insight on this question I spoke with Jeremy Shaw, Media lead for Business Analytics and Optimization with IBM Global Business Services. Shaw is part of the team working with AELTC to design the Wimbledon data analytics experience.

“[Relying on intuition] is not just a challenge in sports, but in business as well,” Shaw told me. “There are a lot of experienced senior management who have traditionally run their business using experience and instinct. And it’s actually worked quite well. But what we’re finding now is that the more successful companies are twice as likely to be using analytics to drive their business. The same applies to sports, to a large extent.”

Shaw has found that if a sports team is able to utilize analytics to provide insight to a player — that what they’ve always done in a particular maneuver, or in a certain way they’ve played the game, can be improved upon — athletes are often quite prepared to listen. Often it's unexpected insights uncovered by analytics that provide the most value.

Dr. Kim Blair, vice president of business development and the director of the Cooper Perkins sports engineering practice group and founding director of the Sports Innovation program at MIT, said during the golf analytics panel that while there are some players that are turned off by analytics, they do care about how performance affects the shots they hit.

“Right now where the golf statistics world is at, is its results based — what happened during that swing,” said Dr. Blair. “The next revolution can be giving golfers the tools to do something with that information, besides just basic information — ‘gee, my short game is bad and maybe I should work on that’ — but getting to a point of, how to work on that short game.”

The same insight, it seems, can be applicable for sports’ business counterparts.

IBM's Shaw believes that by combining historical data with real time data, executives can glean more insight than they would from relying on intuition alone.

“Using analytics in a business is a bit like what we’re doing at Wimbledon, combining huge volumes of historical and real-time data to gain immediate insights,” said Shaw. “Often it’s not the insights you would expect that add the most value. . . it's those unexpected insights and ability to predict outcomes, which really add the most value. And we’re also working with customers analyzing mass Twitter feeds to derive insights, which can be used to dynamically customize websites, advertising and offers, all in real time. Which is something we couldn’t do even a couple of years ago.”

(The next MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference will be held March 1-2 2013.)

2 Comments On: Wimbledon, Big Data and Business Intuition

  • Leslie Brokaw | July 9, 2012

    For more on this topic, see Roger Federer’s coach Paul Annacone talk about how Federer uses data and analytics in preparing for big tournaments, in a video from this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:


  • The Strange Case of Tennis Analytics | September 6, 2012

    […] It’s similar to the technology the NBA uses to show shot selection, rebounding, and positioning. The MIT Sloan Management Review discusses the new […]

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