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SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/E Sports
USOpen.org tour shows off IBM wizardry
Published September 1, 2003
Scores and stats travel from the court to the Web site in less than a second.
Editor's note: SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Russell Adams last week received a first-hand look at the operation of usopen.org, the official Web site of the U.S. Open. The site is produced by IBM, and the company showcases the site's production each year in a tour for clients that Adams also took. He filed this report.
The tour that highlights the centerpiece of IBM's long-term financial commitment to the U.S. Tennis Association is a trip through the National Tennis Center during the U.S. Open that includes very little daylight and even less tennis.
When IBM entertains clients each year by showing them how 12 miles of cable keeps the U.S. Open moving and brings what's happening on the court to the Web, it's not the kind of production that brings tennis fans to New York every summer. It is, however, what puts IBM behind high-profile sporting events, a union that benefits millions worldwide, said Jan Butler, IBM's director of communications for worldwide sponsorship.
"We only choose sports properties where we can showcase our technology," Butler said during last week's tour.
She added that events like the Open are attractive to IBM because they allow the company to show what it can do when there is no margin for error.
"Two weeks a year," Butler said. "You can't get it wrong."
The data delivery system that lets people follow the tournament online begins with the chair umpire, who after each point punches the result into a handheld device, and a courtside statistician, who with an IBM-issued laptop enters statistical information on a computer throughout the match.
The scores and statistics go from the five main courts to a central server in the scoring room, where the data is received, coded and sent to a nearby room filled with more than 50 people who create and process information for usopen.org.
About a dozen people on one side of the room handle all of the back-end technology and infrastructure, which includes overseeing the scoring system as well as the input of audio and visual content for the site.
The audio comes from a room high above Arthur Ashe Stadium, where three radio personalities handle the 12 hours of coverage broadcast on the site each day of the tournament. Next door to the audio room is the video room, where five people produce highlight clips for several 5- and 10-minute shows that appear daily on usopen.org.
The scores and statistics travel from their origins on the court to the Web site in less than a second, speed that does not go unnoticed, said Ezra Kucharz, USTA managing director of advanced media.
"Tennis fans are ravenous," he said.
While the tech side of the Web room is making sure usopen.org visitors are getting coverage instantaneously, editors and reporters occupy another area of the room, putting about 50 stories on the site daily.
The remaining one-third of the usopen.org staff handles the business of the site, tracking traffic to advertisements and talking on the phone with the site's sponsors. Many of the advertisers, Kucharz said, are only recently realizing the number of levels of activation, and they typically ask for adjustments or to swap "creatives" over the course of the tournament.
In addition to banner presence and the sponsorship of certain sections or promotions on the site, usopen.org sponsors also get to run one 30-second spot per television highlight show and 10 to 15 30-second radio spots throughout the 12 hours of coverage each day, Kucharz said.
The only breaks in the feverish pace in the Web room occur when staffers periodically glance at the wall toward what looks like a giant dashboard. There, several counters and graphs track traffic to the site, which by midday last Tuesday (the second day of the tournament) had drawn just under 21 million page views.
While usopen.org is IBM's focus during the Open, the operation of the site is only a fraction of what goes into wiring the tournament for making maximum use of connections.
The scores and updates that get fed to the Web, for example, are also delivered to staffers at an internal bank at the tournament. There, the staffers track the tournament action — specifically, which players are about to be eliminated. Within an hour after a losing player steps off the court, the bank has tallied his or her prize money (minus taxes, fees and fines), and has a check ready for the player to pick up at the window.
"It's like running a city," Kucharz said.