One of the most striking examples of the balance Alexandra Willis must maintain is nearly impossible to see. In the spring of 2017, the digital director at Wimbledon wanted to bring virtual reality to the All England Lawn Tennis Club. NextVR was excited to help, but Willis made it clear that there would be one special condition on the deal. “She emailed us the Pantone code and we had to custom 3D-print a shell so the camera would blend in,” NextVR content head Danny Keens says. “That was the only time we used it, which is partly why we are so excited to partner with them again this year.”
While Wimbledon has kept its orthodox reputation, industry insiders say it is one of the most technologically aggressive sporting events in the world. This year, Willis is letting the NextVR team film tennis in ultra-high resolution stereoscopic 3D for the first time ever. Matches will be streamed over free Wi-Fi to fans waiting in line to get onto the grounds. Spectators can point their phones at stadium plaques to trigger augmented reality experiences. “Our grander ambition is to make sure we are keeping Wimbledon relevant through the use of technology,” Willis says. “In the last few years, we’ve been trying to generate the confidence that it’s better to try these things and accept some won’t work out perfectly—at least you tried.” But at the same time, the forward-looking team makes sure nothing on the grounds looks too forward. Take the new video screen on the side of court No. 1, for example, surrounded as it is by a “living wall” of flowers and foliage.
Wimbledon has also expanded its purview to consider fans around the world. Followers can stay up-to-date via an automated Facebook Messenger bot. IBM was brought in to produce a custom algorithm that tracks crowd noise and player emotion in real time, automatically cutting highlights of each match’s biggest moments. The tournament also struck a partnership with Snapchat, producing content for the app’s Discover page with the hopes of taking viewers into what Willis describes as “tennis in an English garden.”
In total, Willis leads a team of roughly 30 content producers, with tasks ranging from Twitter engagement to longform video production. In most cases, the roles can seem to directly rival similar ones performed by the tournament’s broadcast partners, but ESPN executive producer Jamie Reynolds says the two crews are more doubles partners than opponents. “The AELTC is the most progressive and aggressive in terms of acquiring fresh content and getting it out,” he says. “It’s a symbiotic relationship. Nobody’s trying to be the first to get a clip out, and it’s found a natural rhythm. It’s a cool business model for 14 days.”
Not everyone is going to lock in for a three-hour match, Reynold understands. Certainly not these days, and especially not with the World Cup competing for eyeballs. So the 2018 strategy goes something like this: Imagine Wimbledon like a high-budget adventure movie. You should be able to follow the plot on social media, getting updates on turning points and moments of emotional importance, thanks to both ESPN and Wimbledon’s online footprint. But to get the action—to feel like you’re there—you ought to turn on the TV, and theoretically you’ll have the background knowledge to enjoy the main broadcast without needing a catch-me-up. Plus, with every match now being filmed and shown across ESPN’s networks—including it’s new, $5-a-month online channel, ESPN+—Reynolds is able to be more flexible with his main offering.
The goal, Reynolds says, is for it to feel at times like NFL RedZone, bouncing between exciting matches. On Monday morning, the broadcast quickly goes from Sloane Stephens’s upset loss against Donna Vekic to Roger Federer’s first-round cruise, staying with the defending champion for a post-game interview. There are highlight sections from around the grounds mixed in, and on-screen tournament update windows shown to keep fans abreast of all the action. The ESPN app lets viewers switch between matches, but it could do more guide users directly from feed to feed. The same can be said on TV, where commentators tell fans they can keep up with their match on ESPN+, but for match scores that scroll across as tournament updates, it’s not immediately obvious how to find the corresponding stream.
When the broadcast doesn’t involve action from around the grounds, Reynolds aims to add setting to the film that is Wimbledon: where fans are gathering, what they are eating, who they are taking selfies with (again, understanding that viewers wanting plot or action can find them on other platforms). That aspect could be improved, too, either showing ephemera in a window during commercial breaks or airing it instead of the highlight packages that fans can get elsewhere.
To better provide those scene shots, ESPN worked with Wimbledon to add more camera positions this year as the two think about the next decade of sharing Wimbledon with the world. By 2028, maybe NextVR will have replaced all of those other cameras. Maybe more people will watch on Snapchat than on cable. Either way, Wimbledon will be working to make sure tennis in an English garden lives on.