This was due to be the first week of Wimbledon, widely considered to be the leading tournament on the tennis calendar, and one which sees 500,000 fans flock to the 42-acre site in south-west London and hundreds of millions more watch the action on television and online.
However, this year, the striking black and gold gates of the All England Lawn Tennis Club remain firmly shut, the famous grass courts are undisturbed, there are no players donning the traditional all-white uniforms of the oldest grand slam and there is no legion of spectators queuing up from the early hours in the hope of securing prized tickets.
Instead, the cancellation of Wimbledon 2020, one of many major events impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, has forced the AELTC to pivot to a digital strategy, with a variety of new content to keep viewers at home engaged.
Last year's tournament secured a global television audience of 614 million, making it one of the most watched sporting events in the world. Meanwhile, the Wimbledon.com platform attracted nearly 60 million visits over the course of the event and there were record-breaking digital views for the memorable men's singles final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
However, at the start of April, rather than ramping up activity in anticipation of this year's flagship event, the AELTC reluctantly announced its cancellation because of the acceleration of Covid-19.
While this ended the uncertainty over the tournament, it created other issues notably the loss of a potential £250 ($312 million) from broadcasting rights, ticketing and merchandise sales.
Perceptively, the AELTC was largely shielded from financial damage by a seven-figure pandemic insurance policy it had taken out in 2003 to address such an eventuality.
This meant that instead of scrambling to organise a delayed Wimbledon later in the year, the club has been able to focus on collaborating with its long-time technology partner IBM to develop a campaign to connect with fans across what would have been the two weeks of the event.
While ‘innovation’ and ‘technology’ are, by the AELTC’s own admission, not words usually synonymous with Wimbledon, James Ralley, the club's head of commercial and brand, believes the break has given it the chance to test new digital capabilities which will not only help fill the gap this year, but also be used to enhance the fan experience in the future.
Speaking in a virtual panel discussion, at which a renewal of the partnership with IBM is announced, Ralley says: "I think we made the right call. I know sport is coming back now behind closed doors but for us to have the ability to make a decision and look at the longer-term picture puts us in a pretty good position compared to other events.
“Technology is everywhere, it’s pretty much involved in every relationship that we have and I think what we’ve done now with the new focus on innovation gives IBM the real ability to do something different with us and that’s something that we’ve always tried to challenge ourselves on and ask ourselves what can we do that is going to create a new way of experiencing Wimbledon for the fan around the world?
“IBM effectively being our innovation partner and the club showing a genuine commitment to that will allow us to future-proof Wimbledon in a way that is reflective of the ‘Wimbledon way’.
“What we don’t want to do is lose sight of the amazing work that’s being done to make Wimbledon a really special and cherished event. It’s just a case that things evolve and change and technology and innovation is going to be a really important part of that.”
IBM effectively being our innovation partner and the club showing a genuine commitment to that will allow us to future-proof Wimbledon in a way that is reflective of the 'Wimbledon way'
IBM’s association with Wimbledon dates back to 1990 and the freshly signed "long-term" extension entails a restructuring of the partnership to ensure future innovation, focusing on accelerating the grand slam’s digital transformation and driving value through the technology giant's AI and cloud capabilities.
Under the new arrangement, IBM has established a dedicated work stream, staffed by IBM and AELTC experts, which will bring innovation in-house under a one-team approach using the collective industry expertise of both parties.
It is a change that has allowed the two parties to respond quickly to the cancellation of Wimbledon 2020 and pivot towards a digital solution within eight weeks of the announcement.
Ralley says: “The relationship itself has changed massively compared to the last 10 years or so where it felt a bit like the club was being quite passive in the relationship and I think now it’s become more collaborative – we’ve challenged each other. I feel that the basis that we are working towards is really going to transform the way that we work and with a much more fan-centric approach with absolute innovation at the heart of everything that we want to do.
“When it became apparent that the  event wouldn’t take place, we were able to very quickly plan for what does it look like without the Championships and I think what we didn’t want to do is trot out loads of archive footage – we wanted to do it in a really engaging fan-centric way. There was a planned approach but I think the key point is that agility which allowed us to adapt so quickly.”
Citing a recent YouGov survey of 2,000 UK adults commissioned by IBM, the AELTC found 62 per cent said they wanted remastered picture quality, while 40 per cent valued modern statistics and 42 per cent wanted access to additional archive content.
The resulting campaign is ‘The Greatest Championships’, a round-by-round compilation of some of Wimbledon’s greatest matches, some of which IBM digitally enhanced using its AI technology to match modern expectations across multiple platforms.
To replicate the full content experience, along with the video itself, IBM has added a presentation of the match, player biographies, statistics, point-by-point commentary, highlight clips, interviews and photography.
While admitting the content will not be a substitute for live tennis at Wimbledon or on television, Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital at the AELTC, claims there is an opportunity to reach out to fans and work on aspects that can be integrated in future events.
She says: “The enormity of the cancellation only really hit us when we received feedback from fans and so we felt pretty strongly that there was a great opportunity for us to create something.
“We wanted to combine the breadth of content opportunities available to us. We know that social media platforms have phenomenal live streaming capabilities but also what you can do in a digital environment in terms of bringing live video with supporting statistics and commentary and when you watch a match from The Greatest Championships, you will see the score animate.
“We are fascinated to see how much our fans are willing to come back and engage with the new content each day and how we make things more interactive, not just video on its own but how we can bring more immersive techniques to that video consumption and I think a lot of us have been observing with interest what the gaming community has done in that regard.”
Asked whether such features and innovations could be commercialised in the future, Willis insists reach is a greater priority than short-term revenue opportunities.
She explains: “Over time and depending on how things develop, there is certainly an opportunity for us to enhance the richness of what we provide to our fans through personalisation. In fact, one of the things that we had planned for this year that hopefully we will improve on for next year was a greater delivery of video content to fans who have registered [for free online] with MyWimbledon based on the players they are most interested in. That is more of the avenue that we will be exploring and progressing rather than any paid requirements.”
Ralley adds: “I would probably go even stronger. When you have people waiting to be engaged and you don’t have an event, I think to charge for this service would be the wrong thing to do.”
Over time and depending on how things develop, there is certainly an opportunity for us to enhance the richness of what we provide to our fans through personalisation
The IBM team had eight weeks to put the content together, a challenge that would not have been possible in the timeframe without the aid of AI, according to Simon Boyden, the company's chief architect for Wimbledon.
To de-blur the archived footage, the video was brought into IBM Cloud and techniques applied to remove unwanted artefacts and noise, and sharpen the quality.
AI models were then trained to enhance the videos further, particularly when it came to addressing pixilation and increasing resolution. The models were also trained to assess the levels of excitement on court based on the roar of the crowd, allowing the viewer to navigate the most enthralling portions of a match.
Boyden says: “Could we have put videos online? Could we have put a level of enhancement to those? Yes, we could have done without AI but it was AI which gave us that extra boost of quality. It was clearly that using an automated technology was something that we need to be able to use in those timelines so it really wasn’t feasible to have dozens of people having to manually edit those videos to the Wimbledon standard.”
With AELTC's increased commitment to innovation, the sky would seem to be the limit in terms of utilising technology at Wimbledon. However, with no guarantee that everything will be back to normal next year, Willis says it will be taking lessons from other sports on advances that work and do not work for tennis.
She says: “It’s been very early days of professional sport returning and we’ve seen different developments being used and there’s no doubt that working together and learning from what other sports are doing, we can all put ourselves in a position that sports can still be consumed in an immersive and interesting way.”
Boyden adds: “What we’ve seen with various industries with working differently, I think this will also accelerate that within sport so the digital acceleration is going to increase in sport so there were examples coming through of experimentation with augmented reality, different video feeds, opportunities for innovative camera angles and those to be available quite rapidly after the match.
“All the conversations happening around whether you want to listen to a tinned crowd within the stadium in a football stadium is a clear example of that but I think sport will need to adapt and indeed that provides new opportunities - new commercial opportunities and opportunities to engage new fans.”
I think sport will need to adapt and indeed that provides new opportunities - new commercial opportunities and opportunities to engage new fans
With no fans allowed in stadiums in many countries, the recent return of soccer to television screens has been accompanied by artificial crowd noise added by broadcasters to compensate for the lack of atmosphere.
South Korea’s top-tier K League was the first league to play crowd sounds over stadium loudspeakers, while artificial noise has been added to broadcasts of games from Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s LaLiga. England's Premier League has since followed suit, using an ‘audio carpet’ of basic noise taken from previous matches mixed with real noise of the actual game. Sounds for scenarios such as goals, penalties and fouls are ‘inserted’ by a watching producer.
However, while the technology is available to use in all sports, Ralley believes there are more challenges to consider for tennis given the spontaneous nature of crowd reactions.
He says: “Clearly at Wimbledon, where it’s so quiet during the actual points, having the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ is really part of the experience. I think it’ll be interesting to see how that is managed [at the US Open] in New York and we’ll certainly be having a look with great interest.
“The AI could be trained to listen to the sound of a crowd and understand in particular scenarios that the crowd make these kinds of sounds. The challenge then is incredibly spontaneous timely events in the stadium and as soon as you have any lag in that, it becomes unnatural.
“If you are a true sports fan there is nothing like being there at the venue itself but I think broadcasters, rights holders and sports will adapt. If we are still at this point in three or four months’ time, leagues and broadcasters will hopefully work together to create a more immersive experience.”