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Can connected rackets make tennis smarter?

Analyst, Center for Applied Insights Europe, IBM

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The red clay of Roland Garros has now settled, and the tennis courts are now quiet. The players then had to put on their all-white clothing for the next Grand Slam competition. For two weeks, all eyes are glued to the tennis rackets hitting the balls on the green grass of the All England Lawn Tennis Club courts in South West London—which means it’s time for Wimbledon.

IBM has been helping to evolve the tennis fan’s experience, as proven by a 26-year partnership with Wimbledon. IBM Slamtracker has been providing instantaneous analytics and insights for a long time. This year also saw the introduction of IBM Watson, in the shape of the Wimbledon Digital Assistant and real-time insights for breaking news at The Championships, Wimbledon.

The Internet of Things is now revolutionizing this fascinating game. Tennis rackets have become powerful data-collecting objects that connect players, enrich the tennis experience and democratize professional tennis, bringing a wealth of analytical possibilities outside the courts for both tennis professionals and fans.

One of the most recent tennis innovations is the introduction of “connected rackets.” At first glance, these look like normal rackets, but the handles include embedded sensors that capture and record the player’s performance. The captured data is then measured and analyzed through an application installed on the player’s smartphone, which provides instant insights about the game: ball placement (impact locator), stroke variety, length of game, number of shots, calories burned, power, endurance and so on.

Babolat, the producer of this smart racket, believes this is the future of tennis and that by 2020 all tennis rackets will be connected. For now, sport in the Internet of Things ecosystem is still in the early adoption stage, but smart, data-collecting technologies combined with the power of mobile and analytics are increasingly in mainstream use and drive strategic opportunities for businesses, as shown also by the IBM Business Tech Trends study.  

This data-collecting tennis equipment made its entrance in official competitions last year, being present at Wimbledon in the hands of top players to help fans learn about their game and connect with their idols. Earlier this year, at Roland Garros, the data collected in these smart rackets was analyzed and made visually accessible to fans through social and digital communities. This is just the first of a generation of smart devices that analyze data and provide a deeper understanding of the game.

This example opens up many possibilities. Imagine playing against big champions like Rafael Nadal without being physically on the same court, or understanding better the touch and feel that professional players have. Imagine being able to analyze, understand and control your own game, or having a personal coach every time you go to the tennis court. Imagine being able to enrich realism in online gaming with just a smartphone and a racket.

All of this is made possible by the power of real-time data collected by the sensors. The great value of this object lies in being able to self-quantify your performance right after the game, keep a history of your data, analyze your evolution and aim to improve your performance. In a world where connectivity and social collaboration go hand in hand, the smart racket bets on the power of online communities to share statistics, increase the competition level and connect users in a very interactive way, duplicating the competitive atmosphere in the arena.

By bringing connectivity, analytics and social together, smart sports equipment can cause shifts in consumer and business behavior and can easily become a disruptive innovation that will change markets and enable determined fans to consume sports in new ways. Here are some facts to consider:

  • Gartner predicts that 91.3 million wearable electronic fitness devices will be shipped by 2016 and estimates that 50 percent of people considering purchasing a smart wristband will decide to buy a smart watch instead. Why not extrapolate this behavior to sports equipment as well?
  • The Internet of Things is transforming businesses. By 2020, over 25 billion connected devices will be in use.    
  • The IBM Center for Applied Insights study, "Inside the mind of Generation D," showed that data-rich and analytically-driven enterprises are 2.1 times more likely to link customers, employees and partners to engage the market. In sports, connecting people and understanding the power of data and analytics is essential.

Connected rackets, smart sensor basketballs, smart soccer balls and connected shoes are only a few examples of how technology is enriching the sports experience and bringing progress and innovation into the field. These sensor-embedded objects give us a first sense of how professional players, coaches, fans and amateur players understand the game, the training and the sports events. Through data research and development, sports equipment will progress, new sports communities will be built and players will interact differently with each other and their audiences. 

The future of sport is about connecting more than just ball to racket.

Related reading:

Game, set, match data / Jeu, Set et Match … de données

Wearables and IoT: Putting them to work in business