By Barry Janoff
September 3, 2013: As fans of the U.S. Open watch the on-court efforts of Serena Williams. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray, IBM has been working with the U.S. Tennis Assn. to create the next generation of analytics, cloud computing, mobile and social technologies to "deliver real-time insights into match data that go beyond basic scores and stats."
IBM, which has been an official sponsor of the USTA and the U.S. Open since 1992 and has operated the USTA's Web sites since 1995, recently extended its alliance for another four years.
The growth of tech solutions created by IBM for and in conjunction with the USTA can be tracked via the tremendous growth of Internet and mobile usage during the IBM-USTA relationship. In 1997, there were 8 million total visits to the official U.S. Open Web site. That rose to 12.9 million in 2001. In 2008, that more than tripled to 39 million visitors.
In 2012, there were 325 million total visits to the U.S. Open Web pages, with 117 million of them coming from mobile devices, according to IBM.
The infrastructure that supports the U.S. Open's global presence is hosted on an IBM SmartCloud. IBM also runs tennis-specific marketing under its "Let's build a Smarter Planet" campaign.
IBM has official alliances with all four tennis Grand Slam events, which include the U.S. Open, Australian, French and Wimbledon. In addition, IBM has sponsorship deals with golfs Masters and U.S. Open events. IBM's major non-sports alliance is the Tony Awards.
Among the new aspects at the 2013 U.S. Open is a redesigned IBM SlamTracker “Keys to the Match” analytics dashboard. This exclusive program crunches more than 41 million data points from eight years of Grand Slam matches to help fans, media, broadcast analysts and the players themselves better understand how and why a player prevails in a particular match.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Rick Singer, IBM vp-client executive marketing, about using technology to create and develop fan, player and business relationships.
NYSportsJournalism.com: IBM does not have many sports alliances when compared to many other global companies. Why partner with the USTA and the U.S. Open?
Rick Singer: We've been asked this may times: Why a sponsorship with the all four tennis Grand Slam events, including the U.S. Open? This is the fifth anniversary of IBM's 'Smarter Planet' strategy. There are four key areas we are working to build and evolve: Cloud, productive analytics, mobile and social. The U.S. Tennis Assn. and the U.S. Open is as good an example as anyone with whom we work where we can use it all. Not just the Web sites, but building all of those platforms. Bringing it all together and making it come alive.
NYSJ: There is a big push during the two weeks of the U.S.Open, but what happens during the rest of the year regarding this alliance?
RS: The USTA does a lot of work all year, but the two weeks of the U.S. Open fund the other 50 weeks. And it is not just a revenue builder for IBM and the USTA — our alliance makes the USTA's sponsorship deals with other partners more valuable. It is a partnership: What can we bring to it and what can they bring, and how do we both benefit from what we learn and build all year that we can apply elsewhere.
"What makes this alliance different is that we are both very much imbedded within each other. It's not like a soft-drink deal where you change the signs and spigots."
NYSJ: IBM just renewed with the USTA and the U.S. Open for another four years, but given the competitive nature of business, did you take if for granted that the deal would be renewed?
RS: Never. Neither side would do that. What makes this alliance different is that we are both very much imbedded within each other. It's not like a soft-drink deal where you change the signs and spigots. Honestly, it would be difficult for us to leave because this is so much a part of our DNA. We are a New York-area company with our corporate headquarters in Armonk (about 30 miles north of New York City). From a corporate, marketing and growth standpoint, this is a good plaice for us to be . . . I hadn't even looked at the last contract since we signed it [in 2009]. There was no need to question what we were doing. This is not just putting the IBM logo on something. It is about making the relationship come alive. Our goal every year is to improve it, enrich it.
NYSJ: Looking at IBM's strategy through its sports sponsorships and alliances, what are the benefits in reaching current customers and talking to potential new customers?
RS: We are here at the U.S. Open, which is an event that many people and companies want to be associated with. So it's a great platform for that. But we are really in the business of storytelling. Clients want to hear a story about what they need to do to build their business, and they want to hear what you've done before to build businesses. And the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the other Grand Slams and the major golf events provide us with stories to tell.It's about passion: Finding things that our clients really care about. People care about and are passionate about the events we sponsor. Which means they listen. And if they listen, and hear the right story, they will align their business with IBM.
NYSJ: Even though more people than ever carry technology with them, has part of the challenge for IBM been to humanize all of the technology and bring it closer to consumers?
RS: Yes. When I talk about passion, what we are doing is allowing tennis fans to experience the U.S. Open in new and different ways. So if they are having a better experience, either in person or online, they will associate that with IBM. They are also thinking about their business and how they can improve and expand their strategies using technology. And that is a critical strategy for us in this sponsorship. Before we decide to sponsor anything, the question we ask is, "How we can improve the experience?"
NYSJ: Are you still using the Web sites as a focal point for all the information?
RS: The Web sites are still important; they reach a mass audience. But its amazing how mobile has grown over the last two, three years. In 2009, there were 39 million visits to the Web sites. In 2012, there were 325 million visits, and 117 million of those came from mobile. Those numbers were up 38% from the previous year . . . We want people who are not at the U.S. Open in person to watch the event on TV. But to also use their iPad or another second-screen to take advantage of the technology. We used to find that visits to the Web were higher during the week, when people were at work or not able to watch on TV. Now, with mobile, the curve is changing. We are seeing Web visits getting higher all week.
NYSJ: How much of an impact has the global nature of tennis had on IBM?
RS: We are the only company that has an official sponsorship deal with all four tennis Grand Slam events. So, for us, that covers all the major regions in the world. The reach is very broad. But at the same time it gives us the opportunity to connect on many personal levels with consumers and companies with which we work in each area. Although we have sponsorships on a global scale, we are able to work with companies and properties on a local level. And tennis is interesting in that it has representation from so many countries around the world.
NYSJ: How much does IBM like the idea that tennis and golf cross boundaries and that fans of the sport stend not to root for specific players based on their national heritage but rather on performance?
RS: That might be true in more so in tennis than any other sport. Look how many people root for Roger Federer, and for how long they have supported him. Novak Djokovic is one of the best-liked players on the tour. Rafael Nadal has a tremendous fan base in the U.S. On the women's side, Maria Sharapova has a solid fan base. But there is hunger for good U.S. players. Serena Williams is No. 1, but you have some good young Americans coming up on both the men's and women's side: Sloan Stephens, Madison Keys, Jack Sock.
NYSJ: How would you evaluate the sports sponsorships for IBM, which are with strong properties but mainly in tennis and golf?
RS: We are very happy with what we have regarding our sports sponsorships.You can see the tremendous effort that goes into this. If we do too many of these sponsorships, eventually what would happen is that we will spread ourselves too thin. What we like having is different teams working on each individual sponsorship, and then having them all work together to take advantage of what we are learning and building at each one. The purpose of this sponsorship is to be part of our marketing platform, and we are covering the world with the properties we have.
NYSJ: Is IBM looking to expand on its sports sponsorship roster?
RS: We are always looking. There are some things we are looking at that are within the family of sponsorships we already do. It's a bit too early to talk about that.
NYSJ: What's your overall view of tennis fans regarding their tech-savviness?
RS: The tennis fan population is pretty tech-savvy. And as younger fans grow with the sport, you will see that become even more of a fact. IBM is driving technology around the world, not just in tennis or our sports alliances. So it all fits together very well for us. We are seeing more players becoming involved with the technology and the analytics we provide. They want to see it taken to the next level. But they aren't as happy that, with one click, fans can see how many double-faults or unforced errors players have had. [Laughs].
Crunching Numbers: IBM, USTA Compute Data For New Four-Year U.S. Open Partnership
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