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How IBM Watson Has Changed the Face of Sports Reporting

Since its creation in the mid part of the last decade, IBM’s Watson technology has broken new ground for what’s now being called Cognitive Computing . After initial tests that included participating in (and winning) an episode of American gameshow Jeopardy!, the technology has grown to gain wider, and crucially more commercial, applications. Over Christmas, we discussed how Watson was being used to help consumers find and purchase presents for their friends and family, and it’s also been put to use as a Chatterbot to provide the voice for the current generation of Smart toys.

This summer brought another significant development when it was put into action at the Wimbledon tennis championships. In this post, we look into what Watson was used for at the All England Club and what it means for the future of technology’s integration with sport – and beyond.

How was IBM Watson Used?

IBM has been the official technology supplier of Wimbledon for nearly three decades, but the continued growth of Watson gave both IBM and the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTFC) the opportunity to take their innovative partnership to the next level. With so many discussions taking place on so many platforms (social media channels as well as blogs and websites), as well as reaction from fans at the venue (Watson can analyse facial reaction) and the data relating to the matches themselves, data plays a unique role in tournaments like Wimbledon. Watson can gather and analyse vast quantities of data (for example, over 400 tweets per second) and then offer insight into how the championships, players, and matches are being received.

It did this by setting up a Cognitive Social Media Command Centre at Wimbledon during the Championships. The Drum was granted access in the days leading up to the final and writer Lynn Lester found herself impressed by the level of technology and data at hand. She writes: “[There are] teams working effortlessly to bring us (the public and media) tons of intricate details such as every single point on the court, linking that up with 100 percent real time accuracy and disseminating the abundance of facts and figures in a format that is meaningful to their global audience of one billion engaged fans.

“Included within the centre were different elements of social listening monitoring and any online threat monitoring, data capture analysts working from the balcony through the court’s various tracking points, website and app content creators too. It is a veritable hive of real-time activity, that is shared directly with an audience hungry for information.”

Such a wealth of information is worth its weight in gold. Statistical data from the matches themselves can be fed to commentators and reporters to enhance their offering to the public, as well as making Wimbledon seem at the cutting edge of technology. Meanwhile the social media information can be used going forward to enhance campaigns and communication with fans. Even the players benefit, with all the data being made available for them to analyse their performances, as well as those of their competitors.

The ultimate benefit, however, is the one delivered to fans, who enjoy Wimbledon as much more than a simple spectator sport, but as a full interactive experience. “We’re thinking each year how to keep in step with evolving tech, but with real purpose, and to make sure we’re not doing something just for the sake of doing it,” Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital at the All England Club told The Telegraph. “It’s taking the TV screen away from being something you need to sit down and watch, and thinking of the TV in a different way in terms of the content we can offer there.”

How will this change sports reporting?

Social media has already created a seismic shift in the way sport is reported. Before, major breaking news would have to go to print or find its way to broadcast, both of which take time. Now, however, journalists in possession of a significant scoop simply need to login to Twitter and tweet the news. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it’s given sports reporting a major boost, making it reactive, real-time, and sometimes even more exciting than following the sports themselves. Where this live, reactive sports reporting world falls down, however, is depth and accuracy: the faster news travels, the more risk there is of it lacking those things.

The speed at which IBM Watson can gather and analyse statistical data is a hugely critical step. It allows sports reporting to stay up to date with a generation of viewers who want things right away while still being assured that they can deliver the right thing. “The challenge that we’re addressing here is ‘how do you get a millennial to take an action within a six second window to interact with my social media rather than anyone else’s?” IBM’s Sam Seddon told Tech Radar. “There’s a limited opportunity window you have with young people on social media – people skim at speed and you do need the right content there that people see at the right point of time.”

This opens up a world of possibilities, not just for technology companies and those running major sporting competitions, but also those looking to get involved in the discussion online. Sport is unpredictable and while there’s always a chance Andy Murray could galvanise the nation by winning Wimbledon, there’s equal chance that England’s football team could sink to an embarrassing defeat to Iceland and deflate the nation. Even beyond regional interest, truly thrilling games can be hard to come by. Euro 2016, for example, saw an average of just 2.12 goals per game, the fourth lowest of any European Championship since its inception in 1960. It was widely deemed to be one of the least exciting major football tournaments of recent years.

Whether brands are sponsoring a major tournament or just hoping to ride its coat-tails, there are simply no guarantees that the actual action will be exciting enough to inspire the necessary interest. On such occasions, people flock to social media to make the events more entertaining, so there’s a significant opportunity there to engage with them, enhance their enjoyment of the boredom (or excitement if the games are thrilling enough), and engage them with your brand. How effectively you create that conversation depends on what you have to say, and if you’re using real-time, accurate data then you’re in with a better shot of having something compelling to say than those who aren’t.

How else is this technology being used?

The possibilities for this kind of technology stretch far beyond sport though. Indeed, there are pretty much endless opportunities for this technology to revolutionise key services. For example, healthcare company Welltok used Watson on its CafeWell platform, which allows customers to access resources to keep their health in check based on data unique to them. “We saw the opportunity to add a layer of intelligence and other capabilities to the application,” Welltok’s co-founder Jeff Cohen explains. “Adding cognitive computing enables us to provide even more relevant recommendations to consumers, to connect with them at a more personal level and to modify those recommendations as the system learns more about the person.”

Those in banking and financial services are also expecting to make heavy use of cognitive computing like Watson to revolutionise their industry. The sheer amount of data that passes through the industry on a daily basis makes a technology such as Watson not just a benefit, but an absolute necessity. A study by the IBM Institute for Business Value found that of those familiar with cognitive computing, 79 per cent think that it will play a critical role in shaping the future, while 88 per cent are planning to invest in the technology going forwards. Fintech is a growing area and IBM will no doubt be looking to take advantage.

On a smaller, more commercial level, cognitive computing can be used to better understand consumer behaviour or act as a personal shopper that can make purchases by analysing what the consumer has bought previously. Plans are already afoot to use it in smart cars and if it’s successful there, there’s little doubt it’ll be rolled out into more consumer products, gathering data on usage and customer satisfaction. There are limitless possibilities and they’d prove beneficial to both consumers and brands looking for greater value from their products.


The use of IBM Watson at Wimbledon is another significant step forward – both for this product and Cognitive Computing as a whole. By testing the technology at a major event such as Wimbledon, IBM can make a name for Watson and portray it as much more than just a cool piece of tech. Cognitive computing has vast possibilities and the action at Wimbledon this summer represented the first step on the road to realising those possibilities.

What do you think of IBM Watson and Cognitive Computing? Do you think there’s a significant opportunity for commercial application in the future? Let us know in the comment section below.

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