The Open typically draws around 850,000 fans over three weeks. When the USTA announced in June that the Open would be held for the first time with no fans on site, IBM, a longtime sponsor and tech partner of the Tennis Association, was tasked with finding ways to make sure all those people would still tune in.
“We engage in partnerships like with the US Open, or any of our other sports partnerships, because we believe that people have a passion for tennis,” Noah Syken, vice president of IBM sports and entertainment partnerships, said during a press call last week. “If we can deliver an amazing experience through an activity that they love and believe in and spend their leisure time in, when they go back to their office and have a decision to make about what they’re operating in their business, they’ll think of IBM.”
AI-powered sports debate
The tool presents fans with questions, such as: “Was Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova the greatest tennis rivalry of all time?” Fans can choose to agree or disagree with the question and submit their own argument; the tool then combines that feedback with statistics, expert opinions and other information pulled from the internet into a summary of arguments on the debate.
As more fans weigh in, IBM says the summary will update to reflect the changing discussion. Though the tool mostly relies on artificial intelligence, it will get some human assistance: An editor will help to filter out offensive or sarcastic responses, as well as write the AI’s research into a narrative summary.
Although it may not feel quite the same as strangers cheering together when their favorite player scores, the USTA hopes the tool will help bring the tennis community together and keep eyeballs on the tournament.
“What is it that most fans like to do? If you think about things like sports talk shows, it’s all debate,” said Kristi Kolski, marketing program director for IBM sports and entertainment partnerships. “For fans who can’t be on site, these are new ways to engage them in the event and connect them to the conversation, and each other.”
Serving up a business proposition
IBM’s natural language processing technology is designed to identify and make sense of colloquialisms and idioms — as well as certain dialects or industry-specific terms — such as “open a can of worms” or “hardly helpful” (previously, an AI system might think someone was actually opening a can of worms).
The tool gives tennis fans a chance to play with an AI technology designed mostly for corporate environments.
Just as Open Questions will comb through fan responses to summarize arguments on key tennis questions, IBM says its technology could analyze a company’s documents and data to conduct research or improve customer service.
“The US Open is a business just like every other business,” Syken said. “We’re here understanding what people are saying about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, but if I’m a retailer or a bank or really I’m in any business, I need to understand what people are expressing about my company, about my business, about my brand.”