AI and VR amp up Open while FTA struggles

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While Nine struggles with its free-to-air Australian Open tennis audience, organisers are using AI and 3D virtual to deliver an alternative experience to fans.

Working with Bangalore-based digital innovation partner Infosys, Tennis Australia is using the technologies to enhance experiences for those onsite and those unable to attend in person.

Chief revenue officer Ben Slack says the innovations are envisioned to alter the sporting normal well beyond the current Grand Slam, in a shift towards placing digital at the core of the tournament.

"The past year has accelerated the need for meaningful digital engagement between the Australian Open and its fans, players, coaches, partners and the media," he says. "Our focus this year is delivering new digital experiences and insights that are accessible for everyone involved, regardless of where they are currently located."

Slack says the partnership with Infosys - now in its third year - has allowed TA to optimise engagement with all its stakeholders, "not only our fans, players and coaches but our broadcast partners and sponsors as well.

Despite access restrictions this year, new and improved digital experiences are being delivered.

Immersion in analytics through 3D Court Vision allows individuals to watch tournament matches in an animated form, with data - from speed to spin to serve placement - overlaid for each shot. Infosys is using Hawk Eye data to animate each shot in near real-time, with fans able to analyse the game from any vantage point in the stadium.

A new AO Virtual Slam experience aims to further passion, transporting every fan into the Rod Laver Arena, with 3D court views and data simulating the experience of playing at the AO. An enhanced AO fan app delivers richer content and personalised journeys based on their interest areas, while guided navigation helps fans find their way within the new Melbourne Park zones set up due to COVID protocols.

In a dedicated AO player and coach app, an AI video analysis feature brings new intelligence to the hands of all players and their teams, regardless of rank. The AI tool allows precise player and opponent assessment, be it the technique behind winning backhand drop shots or handling volley shots in long rallies. With many players' full teams unable to attend the tournament, this feature allows coaches to provide guidance remotely from anywhere across the world by sharing live strategy notes in the app.

An AI 'shot of the day' feature allows the AO media team to make use of machine learning to rapidly identify match highlights, using multiple data points that are objective (such as fastest serve) and subjective (player emotion, crowd reaction and cruciality of the shot in context to the match).

A 3D AO 'virtual hub' powered by Infosys Meridian has also been developed to overcome physical restrictions for partners and sponsors, integral to the AO business model. This delivers a premium experience for partners to access exclusive events, including behind the scenes tours, 'legend interactions' and live performances and is expected to host more than 12,000 VIPs across the globe during the tournament.

Infosys ANZ senior vice president Andrew Groth says while the pandemic forced organisations to change tack and adapt, the AO has been able to meet changing needs while continuing to push the boundaries of what's possible digitally. "Our work this year is a clear demonstration of the power of data and AI, and its ability to bring people closer, no matter the physical distance."

While the Open delivered Friday's best FTA audience stats, viewership dipped to 633,000 for Nine's main coverage, with night session two on 463,000 viewers, the night pre-match 442, 000 and the day session 318,000.

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