US Open won't have spectators, but it will have IBM's AI and hybrid cloud

Fans will be able to use IBM's new tech features as they watch the Grand Slam event from home this year. Find out the details of how the event went remote.


Fans can become instant "experts" about the players and the tournament match-ups with new AI-powered insights.

Image: IBM

This year, IBM is partnering again with the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and has developed three new tennis-based digital experiences for fans of the US Open. Spectators won't be allowed at the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY when the Grand Slam event begins on Aug. 31, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they will be able to participate remotely with new fan experiences that use artificial intelligence (AI) underpinned by hybrid cloud technologies. 

IBM has partnered with the USTA for 29 years, but 2018 was the first year that AI-powered tools were used by players and coaches. Last year, IBM introduced the IBM Coach Advisor and IBM Watson OpenScale

SEE: Natural language processing: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

How the US Open went digital this year

This year, the USTA had only 75 days to start planning a digital fan event, when the announcement was made on June 17 to hold the tournament without fans on site. That gave IBM less than 12 weeks to develop, test and deliver the new digital experiences. 

Lew Sherr, USTA chief revenue officer, said during a press event on Thursday, "The expectation was that summer would beat this thing [COVID-19] down and we would be safely in front of a potential second wave. As it became apparent that that wasn't going to be the case, we started going through a series of contingency plans, and analysis around a variety of options, which included postponing. It included relocation to either California or a relocation to Florida. We even had an invitation from Guam to bring the Open there. Ultimately, we arrived at staying on our dates and staying here in New York. Really, there were three guiding principles that led our thinking. First and foremost, safety. Safety for everybody involved. Not just the players and those who are on-court officials,  and ball persons, but safety for staff, safety for broadcast teams, food service folks, everyone here onsite."

"We also needed to make sure that what we were doing wasn't somehow impacting the health and wellness of our fellow New Yorkers or taking away capacity to protect our New York population. We were able to pass that test," Sherr said. "Secondly, it was critical to us that what we were doing would always be in the best interests of our sport. That meant that the player field had to be representative of a Grand Slam quality event. That the event presentation itself, with no fans in our stadiums, would also be up to the standards that our fans would appreciate and expect and enjoy."

"Thirdly, there was a financial component. It was critical that we could stage this event in a financially valuable manner, but at the same time, it was also important to us that the players wouldn't have to sacrifice any of their compensation to participate," Sherr said.

Noah Syken, vice president of sports and entertainment partnerships for IBM, said that the operational challenges to turn the US Open remote were extraordinary.

Sherr explained, "This is an event that would typically have over 7,000 people working during the tournament. Then you're layering in 850,000 fans over a period of three weeks. Then you've got players and entourages and the like. We're doing it this year with a skeleton onsite managing the grounds. You won't see linespeople on the court, we're using electronic line calling. Our digital teams...have been dispersed and we're operating from remote locations. Everything is being done in the cloud, and that's been necessitated by the need to allow for social distancing, and only those absolutely essential folks."

He said, "So we're doing things we would never have envisioned. Player dining is through an app and food is being delivered to a luxury suite that might've been IBM's in a past year. Everything is being done from remote locations. And even some of our internal meetings, quite honestly, are happening in a virtual fashion with folks who might be in the building at the same time."

Public, private and hybrid clouds

Jason McGee, IBM Fellow, CTO and vice president of the IBM Cloud Platform, said during Thursday's press event that the IBM Hybrid Cloud is supporting the unforeseen needs of the US Open. 

"Many of the applications that power the Open were already running in the cloud before this year, but the pandemic has caused some big changes this year. Because no one is on-site, we're now running the scoring, staging, and publishing systems in a private cloud. The public cloud serves up the digital experience to all the fans handling the massive scale and global reach that an event like the US Open demands. The entire digital operations of the Open are now on the cloud. The key to making all this work is Red Hat OpenShift on IBM Cloud. OpenShift is the technology, that's the connective tissue that ties this all together," McGee said.

The applications are built in containers that are managed with OpenShift and that allows IBM to pull from a variety of data sources and run workloads on IBM's public and private clouds. Dozens of APIs from the public cloud, including nine different AI services that power the fan experience, are also being leveraged, he said.

On June 17, the team switched gears from planning an in-person event to the remote version for fans. "Hybrid cloud with Red Hat OpenShift allowed us to adapt to this change, and it allowed us to accomplish two things. First, support the digital production of US Open with a team working entirely from home. Normally, statisticians capture stats court side. Today they're in Jacksonville, watching matches on the latency feeds. Normally, our team would be sitting side by side with USTA, publishing content to the website and to the app, but today we're in dozens of locations from New York to Atlanta. The second thing the hybrid cloud enabled was the ability to quickly deliver new digital features," McGee said.

Digital solutions for fans at home and more

Two of the new solutions are based on Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities from IBM Watson. They pull from a variety of data sets and running workloads on multiple clouds. The new solutions were developed by IBM iX, a digital design agency. They're available on official US Open platforms, including and the US Open app.

Fans can participate in Open Questions with Watson Discovery. This will give fans a way to engage remotely in iconic sports rivalries such as who the most influential tennis player is in history. IBM will use the NLP capabilities in Watson Discovery to analyze millions of news and sports sources for insights. The unstructured data will be analyzed and summarized and delivered to the fan on their mobile device or laptop. 

There will also be Match Insights with Watson Discovery so that fans can gain AI-powered insights ahead of each match. This uses Natural Language Generation Technology from IBM Research to translate structured data, such as statistics from prior matches, into narrative form. 

IBM will also use AI Sounds to recreate the sound of fans inside the stadium. IBM used AI Highlights technology to recreate crowd sounds during tournaments from previous years. In the past, AI Highlights used Watson to take video footage and rank the excitement level of each clip to compile a highlight reel in near-real time and classify specific crowd reactions, including the crowd roar, to give each clip a crowd reaction score. This insight will be used this year to deliver those sounds based on similar play from last year. The AI Sounds tools will be available to the production teams in-stadium and at ESPN. 

All of this is underpinned by open hybrid cloud. The new fan experience solutions pull from a variety of data sets and APIs running on IBM public cloud and on private clouds. To handle the variety of different workloads required, the USTA is using Red Hat OpenShift to enable this across multiple public and private clouds. 

Survey to see what sports fan want

IBM did a survey of 2,000 US sports fans this year to find out what they thought about digital experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of all sports fans (48%) said that having an interactive digital experience such as streaming, video content, highlights and stats are more important since the coronavirus crisis began. There is a generational difference, however. 64% of Gen Z and 61% of millennials said it was more important to them, compared to 53% of Gen X and 30% of baby boomers.

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Image: IBM