This past June, when Rafael Nadal beat Dominic Thiem to win his 12th French Open and the 18th Grand Slam of his career, fans in the Philippe Chatrier Court at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris and also halfway around the world in Hungary received real-time insights into every forehand, backhand, serve speed or unforced error in ways they couldn’t have imagined in earlier years.

Fans could access those insights on their handheld devices because of the Infosys Tennis Platform, or ITP, a suite of digital technology tools contextualized to multiple aspects of tennis. The ITP delivered those insights and experiences by crunching large troves of data using analytics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality and other digital tools. In addition to Roland-Garros (often referred to as the French Open), Infosys has deployed the ITP for Tennis Australia, which runs the Australian Open and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the London-based governing body for men’s tennis globally. Infosys executives launched the tennis program not because they love the game (which they do), but because they saw it as a way to demonstrate prowess in digital technologies. According to Pravin Rao, chief operating officer at Infosys, “Our collaborations are aimed at enriching the game by providing fans, players and coaches with a new experience leveraging Infosys’s expertise in digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and analytics, mobility, virtual and augmented reality.”

The underlying technology skills enriching the experience of tennis fans are similar to what drives digital solutions for companies in industries like banking, telecom or retail, according to Sumit Virmani, senior vice president and global head of marketing at Infosys. Tennis, or potentially any sport, could be a useful tool in business development, as an engaging and relevant analogy, and to provide vivid examples of Infosys’s capabilities to prospective clients with a long list of commitments and short attention spans. Infosys has had an imperative to grow quickly for several years and at strong margins. It has witnessed tremendous growth, reaching $11.8 billion in revenues in 2018-2019, and securing more business from both existing and new clients, especially in digital transformation projects.

Landing a new digital business should not have been difficult, since “we were driving digital transformation for several global companies from different sectors across the world,” notes Virmani. But perceptions sometimes matter more than reality. Internal studies revealed “our brand recall as a digital transformation partner in different markets across the world was not very high,” he adds.

Clearly, Infosys had to change the way it was perceived by the clients it wanted in its target markets, says Virmani. The company expanded its branding program through the tennis partnerships and that included a hospitality-based component where it invited prospective clients to tennis tournaments. The clients typically attended a session on topics such as ‘Navigating the Digital Disruption’ and technology walkthroughs where the company showed them what it was doing in tennis. “We wanted to show them that if we can apply deep analytics and AI to a global sport like tennis, we can do it for their business as well,” says Virmani.

Infosys considered several sports such as soccer to communicate and demonstrate its digital transformation messaging, and chose tennis because it was popular in both the U.S. and Europe as well as other markets it wanted to grow. The company earns about 60% of its revenues from the U.S. market, about 24% from the European market, and the remaining from Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world.

“We are committed to helping tennis further expand its global following in the physical and the virtual world powered by digital innovation.” –Pravin Rao

Building a Critical Mass

Infosys Tennis launched the ITP with a small, single project in 2015 as a technology partner for the ATP. The ATP partnership was “a great stepping stone” because it ran 62 tennis tournaments in 31 countries, says Navin Rammohan, vice president of global corporate marketing at Infosys. The ATP also hosted tournaments in key cities along both U.S. coasts, “which gave us those touch points to bring prospective clients to such events, and to show them the technology work that we’re doing for tennis,” he added.

Infosys secured its next biggest tennis client last September, when it signed a three-year deal with Tennis Australia to become digital innovation partner for the Australian Open. This March, it initiated its relationship with Roland-Garros as its technology partner. In June, ATP extended its partnership with Infosys for two more years, through 2020. “Today we are the digital innovation partner for three major tennis organizations in the world,” says Rammohan. “In a very short span, our association is seen by fans and tennis stakeholders across the globe as credible and integral to the tennis ecosystem, something that has taken many decades for some of the largest technology organizations dealing with the Grand Slams.”

According to Rammohan, the ITP has certainly helped in opening C-level doors and nurturing existing relationships at marquee companies for Infosys.

Technology also boosts the business of sports by broadening its audience at a time when it could use such help, according to Mark Francis, an instructor in sports management at University of California, Los Angeles. “One of the big challenges for sport in North America is declining attendance at major sporting events, especially with Major League Baseball,” he says.

Francis says that for example in his home city of Los Angeles, there are many “friction points” that prevent fans from attending a live sports event. “Cost is one; we’re reaching a limit in terms of what fans are willing to spend,” he says. Accessibility to stadiums is another issue, where fans are put off by traffic congestion and the difficulty to reach a stadium and finding a seat. Stadium food and beverage offerings also have an impact on a fan’s experience, he points out.

Building the Digital Experience

According to Raghavan Subramanian, associate vice president at Infosys, who also leads the Infosys Tennis Platform, “Infosys cut its teeth in the digital world of tennis with an ATP project to provide players with an online platform to manage activities related to the game throughout the year.” Called PlayerZone, it included tournament registration, hotel booking and transportation arrangement, information on prize money and even doubles partner matching.

Next, it worked on another ATP project to manage data on scores ATP had collected over 25 years, and make them “consumable and understandable” for fans. The end product was a series called ATP Stats Leaderboards. It visualizes, for example, how a particular player’s performance on a grass court in 1991 would stack up in a similar setting against an Andre Agassi in 2005.

“We did not go just the brand route, and we made technology the hero.” –Sumit Virmani

The ATP Stats Leaderboards also measures player performance in three categories (serve, return and under pressure) using data sets dating back to 1991. Another is the Second Screen, a web-based tool that enables fans to follow live scores and analytics within seconds of a shot being played and track social sentiment. The Second Screen also provides information on the strengths and weaknesses of players that could help them improve their performance.

Infosys recently launched a product called Matchbeats for the Australian Open and then for Roland-Garros, which provides insights into how a match progressed point by point and mapped players’ serve locations. The Matchbeats feature drew some 15 million unique visitors at the latest Australian Open in January, and nearly 10 million for Roland-Garros in May-June. AI Clips, an artificial intelligence-powered tool it developed for the Australian Open, helps their media team generate video clips that identify and understand, in real time, game-changing moments or other highlights of a match, using multiple filters and combinations.

“It’s interesting to be able to take the machine, teach it tennis, and have it start to talk to us and be able to provide our fans with that, as it is happening, in context and in real time,” says Murray Swartzberg, ATP senior vice president of IT and Digital Media in a video testimonial.

“Infosys was able to challenge the way tennis has been consumed,” says Michael Tonge, director of sponsorship, hospitality and ticketing at the French Tennis Federation. “Nobody has done that before.” It also helped that Infosys had experience in the space before it went to Roland-Garros. “Infosys has a track record working with the ATP; it had already signed with Tennis Australia for the Australian Open, and it has a commitment to tennis,” says Tonge.

Subramanian recalled one tennis enthusiast in Hungary posting on social media that he could track live scores of a match using the Matchbeats feature. “This is the way forward, and fans are expecting more and more of [such analytics],” he says. “Tennis fans see the speed of information, additional insight and easy-to-consume visualization they get with a consumer app. A sport also has to be as innovative and digitally styled as any other consumer business.”

Infosys also developed for the Australian Open a “Business Development Suite” that used virtual reality technology to show prospective sponsors exactly how their logos would show up in a simulated game. “When they put on their headset, they not only see the entire Rod Laver arena, but can instantly teleport to various vantage points, see a stadium full of fans and as real as it can get, with their logo” Subramanian says.

Brand Impact and Business Impact

Infosys has tracked the benefits from its tennis program on two fronts: brand impact and business impact. Rammohan listed some of those gains:

  • The Infosys brand had a combined TV viewership of about 900 million viewers across the three tennis events last year, he says. That number would be higher if one counted the number of visitors to the sports venues.
  • The Infosys logo had about 2,100 hours of TV exposure in the past year.
  • The ITP engagements also saw 250 pieces of global media coverage.
  • The Infosys brand had 2.5 billion digital impressions across multiple campaigns.
  • Through the tennis partnerships, Infosys reached about 750 million fans through web and app products this year.
  • On the ATP website, the scoreboard and stats section that Infosys manages saw a 27% increase in their viewership this year, over a base of more than 80 million.

Rammohan declined to specify the return on Infosys’s investment in its tennis platform, but says that it created “an opportunity impact that is way beyond the amount of our investment into this.” Driving the ITP effort is a strong multifunctional team with dedicated technology, marketing and business executives assigned for each client.

Intangible gains also accrue, and some of them are beyond measure. One such magical moment for Infosys was at Roland Garros this year when Nadal lay down on the ground in exhaustion after his win. The Infosys banner on the stadium perimeter served as the backdrop as TV cameras focused on Nadal; Rammohan wrote about it in a blog post.

Unlike other advertisers at sporting events, Infosys did not want to use the traditional method of plastering logos for brand visibility with its tennis program, says Virmani. “We were clear right from the start that we wanted to be a technology partner and we wanted to make a credible difference in the business of tennis,” he added. “Our biggest learning has been that we did not go just the brand route, and we made technology the hero.”

A Four-pronged Approach

The success with its tennis program helps Infosys persuade clients that it can extend those gains to their companies because the underlying processes are similar. It has classified those processes under four key technology priorities for its tennis program.

“Tennis fans see the speed of information and the experience they get with a consumer app, and want the same for a sport they follow.” –Raghavan Subramanian

One is a comprehensive approach to data gathering. “We ask the ATP or the French Open or Tennis Australia to give us data not just from the chair umpire, such as on scores or aces; we also need data on aspects like serve speed, spin, height of the ball above the net, angle and social sentiment analysis for each players – in fact, every set of data that they have from every channel possible,” says Subramanian. That process is similar in many ways to how data is gathered in other industries, he adds. “For example, retail companies track the click stream of their consumers, and oil and gas companies track data streaming from sensors on an oil rig.”

The second priority is to generate meaningful insights from such data, using technologies such as machine learning “to generate insights and actionable outcomes.” Subramanian notes that Infosys generates such insights using the same machine learning tools that the best in the business might use to generate automated recommendations based on consumer interest and purchases.

The third priority is to engage various stakeholders with immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, robotics and chatbots. Here again, the underlying technologies are similar between that for its tennis program and those used in telecom, banking or the retail industries to find business solutions, Subramanian explains.

For example, Infosys used virtual reality and augmented reality techniques to design the online store for Tennis Australia, emphasizing the ease for visitors to enter the store, check out the merchandise, place orders, make payments and pick up their purchases from a physical location or have them delivered home. It used the same technologies to design the store layout for a prominent technology company in San Francisco, Subramanian says.

The fourth priority is on monetization of the data and the analytics. The increase in the visitor traffic to the ATP website is an example of how that could drive purchases from its online store, while other data could be used to make more compelling pitches to potential sponsors and advertisers.

Show and Thrall

The tennis program is a popular opening pitch for sales teams across Infosys in showcasing competencies in data analytics or “when a new digital story needs to be told,” Rammohan says. “Our team gives a demo of what we have done, and 90% of the time it creates such an impression that the conversation always moves forward.” He offers a glimpse into how that conversation progresses: “Can I create a new product for you? Can I look at your overall digital infrastructure? Can I look at your cybersecurity approach and see how I can add value there?”

In one such setting at an ATP tour event a couple of years ago, Infosys persuaded the CEO of a large multinational bank to visit its booth to watch a presentation of its data analytics work for tennis. The CEO was so impressed that he set up a meeting for the very next day with the rest of his team, and that “opened the doors for us into a huge opportunity within that bank,” says Rammohan.

Rivalries between Grand Slams can dissolve in the face of business sense. The tennis clients do not see a conflict of interest if Infosys happens to be the common technology or innovation partner, says Rammohan. “They are fine with it as long as they are getting the value and the impact that they want to generate.”

In fact, the organizers of Roland-Garros liked the Matchbeats feature that Infosys had created for the Australian Open, and wanted that for themselves as well. “We were obviously conscious about the respective organizations retaining their brand look and customizing the offering, but the core functionality and the product remained the same,” Rammohan says.

“We saw Infosys as a perfect partner because of their ability to challenge the way tennis has been consumed.” –Michael Tonge

Future Strokes

The experience with the tennis program has emboldened Infosys to set its sights on more and bigger events within and beyond sports. “As it happens, IBM had been the technology partner for all four Grand Slams concurrently since 1993. Two years ago, it ended its partnerships with the French Open and the Australian Open, and Infosys lost little time to fill those vacancies. “We were planning to diversify our portfolio; [we are] overly concentrated in tennis,” IBM’s vice president of sports and entertainment partnerships Noah Syken had told SportsBusiness at the time.

Tonge says that now that the Infosys partnership has helped lay the foundation for the French Open to use digital technologies to enhance fan experience, he wants to do “a lot more innovative and relevant projects in the next two, three, four, five or 10 years.” For one, he wants to tap Infosys to build a robust mobile app and boost the Roland-Garros website. Next, he wants to bring broadcast partners in the loop, and explore ways in which they could use the gains from the Infosys partnership.

Tonge also wants to reach out more to players and coaches with the analytics and insights from the ITP to improve game performance. He recalled how some players say the analytics pried open insights from statistics “that even the players and the coaches didn’t understand or didn’t realize until they saw them.”

Infosys has taken its analytics findings to players to help them improve on their game, but many of them have referred it to their coaches. Craig O’Shannessy, the strategy coach for current No. 1 player Novak Djokovic, is an advisor to the ITP project. “O’Shannessy is well known in tennis circles for his early adoption of data and tech in breaking down match-level patterns,” says a report in Baseline, a tennis magazine.

Finding new ways to monetize the data analytics is another aspect Infosys wants to pursue. Rammohan talked of a product Infosys had developed where fans could remotely watch a match using virtual reality headgear. Back-end agreements between event organizers and broadcasters would facilitate that, and the resulting viewership could attract advertising revenues, for instance.

“You wear your virtual reality gear and select what you want to watch – say, the finals of the Indian Wells tennis tournament — pay a certain fee and you will be transported into the stadium,” says Rammohan. “You could watch the match for the full three hours and move to multiple parts of the stadium; you could become a ball boy or you could be at the top of the stadium, call up stats or see replays, and also interact with a friend watching the same match in a different part of the world.”

Based on that technology, Infosys had developed a match highlights package that the ATP had explored with one of its gaming partners, but that didn’t take off as expected. It possibly was an idea well before its time, says Rammohan. However, he expects that same technology to be useful in other settings. “With 5G becoming a reality, it is a matter of time when these will become common.”

Protecting the Romance and Human Interaction

Could all the buzz around data analytics, virtual reality and such take away from the romance of the sport? “While advanced predictive analytics and modeling are possible now with technology, we have stayed away from predicting outcomes of games  for now as it takes away from the beauty of the game,” says Rammohan. “That is something neither the players want, nor do most of the organizers. There is something about the game which needs to be kept pure.”

“The important piece that doesn’t get a lot of attention when it comes to technology is to how to properly integrate it.” –Mark Francis

“One of the biggest issues in sports now is figuring out how to move forward with changing technologies,” says Kenneth Shropshire, Wharton professor emeritus of legal studies and business ethics and Adidas distinguished professor of global sport at Arizona State University. “The most stable, unchanging enterprise in terms of the visual [experience] has been sport, when you compare that to any other industry that is a hundred years old. Everything from cricket to baseball to tennis has always been the same.” Shropshire is also CEO of the Global Sport Institute at his university, and formerly headed the Wharton Sports Business Initiative.

According to Shropshire, “Technology, in whatever form, is a double-edged sword.” He says it’s debatable whether or not even offerings like instant replays “add to the enjoyment or it removes some of the human element of what the on-the-field official has called. It’s still largely an individual choice as to whether or not you appreciate it.” The millennial generation “expects more” and would more readily embrace what technology offers in enhancing their game experience, he added.

Sports fans are typically reluctant to take anything that is not traditional, but if it enhances their enjoyment of the sport, they will give it a try, Shropshire says. On the other hand, “why are you even at a sports event, if you’re going to listen to a commentator rather than absorbing the events yourself?” His institute is conducting research on how best technology could be useful in increasing fan engagement. “How do you keep the millennials happy and engaged, but not turn off the traditionalists?” is among the questions it explores, he adds.

To be sure, technology has its limitations. “Large-scale events like the NHL Winter Classic [hockey games] and Major League Baseball are designed for real fan experience like human interaction,” says Francis of UCLA. So, it might be a bit of an overstretch to say that technology will “completely transform the fan experience,” he added.

Organizers of sporting events need to focus on just the right amount of technology intervention, says Francis. “You have to be careful of the amount of time that you’re encouraging fans in your venue to be on their mobile device,” he added. “When you’re paying attention to your mobile device, your attention is not on the game, and not on the sporting event itself. That to me is a potential problem. It’s incredibly important for fans to be able to interact with their mobile device, share their experiences and act as brand ambassadors for their sports teams. But at the same time, we do want fans paying attention to our sport.”

“Technology, in whatever form, is a double-edged sword.”–Kenneth Shropshire

Finding talent

The efficacy of technology to identify tomorrow’s sports stars is also debatable, says Shropshire. “[Earlier], you had the scout who would go out and find the next great player, or that soccer player in a remote city in Nigeria for the national team. The flip side [with data analytics] is you don’t go anywhere looking for tomorrow’s sports stars — you only collect the data on the kids wherever they might be, and then you focus on those who have the best data. You may never see the kid who doesn’t have traditionally strong statistics.”

The increasing use of wearables such as sensors in the clothing of players also has pros and cons. “You can do a lot with the analytics from wearables that a traditional scout-type person wouldn’t have an idea about. For example, that player X should no longer try to kick a goal on the right side 20 minutes into the game because he’s too fatigued,” says Shropshire. “[However], as a player, would you want that kind of data — that you have a weakness — to be readily available?” As with other domains, the data collection and analytics in sports raises privacy issues, he adds.

“The important piece that doesn’t get a lot of attention when it comes to technology is to how to properly integrate it,” says Francis. He thought the sports industry could learn about such integration from the themed entertainment industry, with companies like Walt Disney. “There’s a saying in that industry that just because you can doesn’t mean you should – and that applies to all of this technology,” says Francis. “If you make the wrong choice with technology, you’re only going to do the wrong things faster.”