WTA to serve up data-driven insights to modernise broadcast offering
By Susan Lingeswaran
The WTA’s new partnership with Stats Perform presents the next growth opportunity for women’s tennis that will see more data-driven insights around individual players offered to broadcasters and viewers, according to John Learing, managing director of WTA Media, the production arm and media rights distributor of the tour.
The WTA this week announced a six-year partnership with Stats Perform for the international sports and data technology provider to become the tour’s official data supplier.
Stats Perform will be tasked with delivering real-time WTA gameplay statistics to broadcasters, sponsors, technology partners and fantasy games, while also using the company’s artificial intelligence capability to create data-driven insights around individual players.
Learing believes the partnership will help modernise how the WTA’s tournaments are broadcast in a way that will attract younger viewers without alienating its traditional fans.
In an interview with Sportcal, he said: “I think the thing that is comforting to tennis fans is that when they turn on their television or device, the experience they are going to have is very traditional – it is an expected experience and we don’t want to ruin that.
“What’s interesting is that while we spend a lot of money on as many as 10 to 12 cameras, about 80 per cent of the visual experience and storytelling is told through the lens of just four cameras and as producers, there isn’t much we can do with that part, we still need to provide this traditional experience.
“No matter how cool your technology, you can’t ever really convey how fast the sport is, how athletic the players are, it just doesn’t come across in the same way it does when you’re sitting in the stands watching it and while commentators do a great job in trying to convey some of the effort, it just doesn’t have the same impact.
“So this is where we are hoping data insight can help the storyline. We’ll be able to use it to convey to our TV audiences how far a player has run, how fast they ran and how incredibly physically exhausting a tennis event is through stats.”
WTA Media was created in 2015 as joint venture between the WTA and digital sports content and media company Perform Group (now DAZN Group) as a hub to produce all of WTA’s 54 premier and international tournaments and distribute the rights in the international marketplace.
The move was spearheaded by Learing, the then executive vice-president of broadcasting at WTA, and Simon Denyer, Perform’s chief executive.
DAZN, the over-the-top streaming platform, still retains a 10-year, $525-million live media rights and production deal with the governing body, which came into effect in 2017. On top of being WTA Media’s managing director, Learing now acts as managing director of partnership ventures at DAZN.
Last year, Perform’s data and betting business was sold to Vista Equity Partners, the US private equity firm, which merged it with its USA-based Stats business, creating Stats Perform.
Speaking about how he plans to translate the data visually to television audiences, Learing said the process between broadcasters and WTA Media will be iterative but will include more real-time activity within points and games.
He said: “We’ll be trying to give audiences as much real-time data instead of just flashing up a stats board at the end of a set, which is what they do now, and which, in my opinion, doesn’t really convey that storyline at the point where people will care.
“We’ve had conversations with broadcasters but much like the rest of us, I don’t think they know what they want until they see it and can react. At that point they’ll tell us what they like and what they don’t like and we can adjust accordingly to that feedback.
“I think we all want to start walking before we run so we’ll be drip feeding some of these pieces of data into the storyline early in the  season and hopefully get the feedback from broadcasters. It’ll be a living, breathing organism that evolves over 12 months at least.”
While the WTA plans to use the data and stats to modernise its offering to broadcasters and audiences that are already invested in watching tennis, Learing believes the move also has the potential to bring in a new, younger generation of fans through deep-dive options and non-live content.
He continued: “To me the biggest challenge is that tennis is a game with no clock attached to it, a match could last 45 minutes, it could last two hours, and that requires a lot of investment from a viewer.
“The challenge that any broadcaster or production company has is a question of whether you want to cater to that lean-back experience where you just let it flow through you or if you want to engage that person and make them lean in. That’s the tricky balancing act that we have to figure out and make work.
“I want to get out of the business as a ‘one size fits all’ product as quickly as possible and put the power back into the viewer’s hands and let them decide what their experience is going to be by giving them the option to deep-dive or not.
“I think what data is also going to do is allow us to have a dialogue with the fan who just wants the facts, and they want the facts condensed in a product that they can consume in 10 or 15 minutes.
“Whether that is giving them a sort of wrap up of the match that has just concluded or an end-of-day overview, we’re not sure, but it would be stupid for us to only try to super serve the existing tennis fan. We have to try to pull more people into the circus tent.”
In its home market of USA, the WTA last year returned to the Tennis Channel, the specialist network that also shows top men’s ATP Tour events and three of four grand slams (excluding the US Open), which has paid dividends.
The average household audience is up 41 per cent and, in the key demographic of 18-to-49-year-olds, the growth amounts to 68 per cent.
The Tennis Channel took over the rights in a five-year deal after the previous contract with BeIN Media Group, which was due to run to 2021, ended early.
WTA has also benefitted from last year’s agreement with DAZN in countries such as Spain and Brazil, which complimented deals already in place with the OTT platform in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada and Japan. NENT is the broadcaster of the WTA in the Nordic region.
Elsewhere, audiences for the WTA’s rights holder in China, iQIYI, one of the country’s leading digital platforms, were up 36 per cent year-on-year for all Premier and International events last year. iQIYI secured the rights in a 10-year deal that began in 2017.
Automation has been the biggest evolution in production for women’s tennis since the formation of WTA Media, allowing the tour to offer international broadcasters and viewers options to air local stars rather than main draws chosen by broadcasters and production companies.
Learing believes this has led to the game increasing its international footprint and bringing in new audiences’ keen to follow local talent.
He said: “In a typical environment, at the smaller events we’ll have as many as four courts being played simultaneously and at some of the larger events like Indian Wells and the Miami Open we’ll have up to 10 to 12 courts playing at the same time and using automated cameras has allowed us to serve those exterior courts for those fans.
“The thing I have discovered more than anything is that sports, like politics, is all local. In our world feed we are always defaulting to the match that we think is the most attractive to the masses but when you produce all matches, you can serve that Polish fan that only wants to watch the Polish players and in the old way of producing matches the only way to see that player would be if they reached the quarter-final, semi-final or final.
“What the automated solution has allowed us to do is produce all the matches without having to do huge amounts and allow the viewer or local broadcaster decide who they want to watch.”
With the global health crisis still on-going, social distancing measures at sports venues have forced sports producers and broadcasters to look towards remote production solutions as they seek to reduce on-site people and equipment.
Looking forward, Learing said while the coronavirus pandemic has forced the WTA, along with other sports, to accelerate its plans for remote production, it would take more time to work out the logistics, given the temporary nature of some of the courts the tour uses.
He said: “We were comfortable in taking it slow and steady and maybe looking at remote production as a solution two, three years from now but its sped up and we’re looking at how we might be able to find ways to produce, if not the whole thing, at least certain aspects of a match from a hub somewhere else.
“We’ll start tinkering with these things next year. The problem with tennis is it’s so global and it’s not always in the same venues year to year. If you take [American football’s] NFL, it has 30 permanent stadiums so if you want a remote solution, you’ll know it’ll be used a minimum of 16 times every year so you get a lot of return on that investment.
“Tennis is in China one week, and France the next and while some courts are permanent they are often in clubs that may change ownership or locations year to year so it’s much more difficult for us to entertain.
“There is also the challenge in certain regions in the world when it comes to wireless offerings and technology, things that are crucial to successful remote production, so while we are going to tinker starting with outside courts, when it comes to the world feed itself and those key 800 to 900 matches, I don’t think we’re migrating towards remote solution any time in the near future.”
Commenting on how important it is for WTA Media to keep its broadcasts innovative, Learing said while tennis has long been the number one sport for women, other sports were gaining popularity and would soon be competing with them for audience numbers.
He said: “For me, it’s crucial that we remain on the cutting edge when it comes to our broadcasts. It’s great that we are the number one sport for women but you cannot stay the number one sport if you keep the status quo and let’s be honest, television is the way 99 per cent of WTA fans are going to experience the tour so we have to continue to engage or traditional fans while also bringing in new fans too.
“There’s so many women’s sports out there that are up and coming, be it basketball or soccer, and they are hot on our heels and the only way for us to keep our audience numbers is to continually try and tell those storylines of our players who are the face of this sport in different and compelling ways that make you invested in watching them.”