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Volume 22 No. 6

Leagues and Governing Bodies

The United States Tennis Association is convening an internal group to make recommendations on changes in officiating and coaching rules in the wake of multiple high-profile chair-umpire incidents at this year’s U.S. Open.

The most prominent of those came at the women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka on Sept. 8. USTA officials, sources said, were angry at the actions of chair umpire Carlos Ramos in assessing violations against Williams that led to an entire game penalty. While the umpire was technically within his rights for assessing a coaching violation, then one for racquet abuse and one for “verbal abuse” after she called him a “thief,” past infractions of a similar nature have largely led to warnings or been ignored altogether. Charges of sexism and racism quickly ensued.

The USTA sent its chief referee, Brian Earley, onto the court after Ramos docked Williams a game in the second set of her loss to Osaka, but Earley was powerless to do anything because of the rules in place, the same ones the USTA may now want to change.

Carlos Ramos issued a game penalty to Serena Williams during her loss in the finals.
Photo: Getty Images

According to USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier, the recommendations from the group would be for “the consistent applications of rules and specifically coaching.”

The U.S. Open is a $300 million event that just enjoyed its 50th anniversary with record-setting attendance. But it will be remembered most for the uproar that followed the women’s final. The officials at the event are hired by the U.S. Open but certified by the International Tennis Federation, and they follow rules agreed on by the four Grand Slams.

While defenders of the chair umpire maintain he was following the letter of the law, those rules are open to wide interpretation. For example, coaching is not allowed during a match. However, it is widely ignored when coaches signal from the stands, as Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted doing for her. The rule as written says the player must receive the coaching. It’s unclear if Ramos had visual evidence of Williams acknowledging Mouratoglou’s gesticulations.

In a similar incident in 2016 with Serena’s sister, Venus Williams, at the French Open, Ramos gave only a warning. That is different from a violation, two of which lead to a point penalty and the third of which costs a player a game.

The USTA has pushed for coaching and allows it in the junior and qualifying events. But the other Slams are opposed. One source within the USTA said it is possible the Open could act unilaterally if the other Slams do not act to end the inconsistent application of the non-coaching rules.

That said, the larger issue is who has control of the officials — who are independent contractors — in a sport with different rules and different applications of those rules.

“It’s weird,” said Ilana Kloss, the former CEO of World TeamTennis. “I mean, you know the tours have no control at the Grand Slams, and then the Grand Slams have no control over the officials. It’s crazy.”

The WTA Tour, which criticized what it termed inconsistent application of rules in the case of Williams, is undertaking its own review of officiating.

“The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement released Sept. 9.

Artificial intelligence in sports has largely been used for fan interfaces, such as video highlights curated using crowd noises and player reactions.

Now the United States Tennis Association is using AI to assist in identifying and aiding top players. Using IBM’s Watson program, the USTA’s high performance coaching division since the late summer has been digesting thousands of hours of video footage to create customized training reports for top pros and junior players.

AI, or machine learning, can quickly digest metadata and learn how to process and analyze it. Now, video is added to the mix of content for AI to examine.

“We are treating video really like a rich data source,” said Elizabeth O’Brien, program director, IBM Sports & Entertainment Partnerships. “How can we actually see all the things that are hidden in video and turn that into data.”

The additional information and video capability allow players like Madison Keys to dive deeper on their play.
Photo: IBM

Martin Blackman, the USTA’s general manager of player development, said the data has actually helped create a new statistic that measures acceleration and deceleration of players.

“We are able with Watson to look at a player’s acceleration, movement and speed over the course of the match and show them how their court position improves when they are moving at an optimal level,” he said.

Before Watson, the USTA had to manually go through player footage. For a typical 90-minute match, a “tagger” would spend two hours pulling out unforced errors, forehands, backhands and even identifying the exact time of the start and end of each point. By contrast, Watson takes two minutes to do that while analyzing trends and patterns. That means the USTA can deliver nearly instant analysis to players shortly after their matches.

The coaching supplement to AI is the brainchild of Stephen Hammer, IBM distinguished engineer, sports CTO. He helped develop the highlights program and realized it could be used to help player development.

Asked if IBM had used Watson to digest video footage elsewhere, Hammer pointed to one other example. Watson created the trailer for the horror movie “Morgan,” with AI determining the most emotional scenes that were used in that preview.

Similarly, Watson can go through a match and, instructed what to look for, quickly pull out what is required for the coaches. For example, Blackman instructed Watson to focus on points after unforced errors to see whether a player performed better, the same or worse (unforced errors are player mistakes, like a double fault).

“Those are just things we never could have done before, and it is so cutting edge because everyone talks about how important the mental part of the game is, but it is very hard to measure and quantify it and this is a real tangible way of doing so,” Blackman said. 

IBM is a U.S. Open sponsor. The USTA owns and operates the Open and runs player development centers across the country. Watson is now being used at those centers.

Often, outside coaches and parents will send video footage to Blackman. Before Watson, watching all that unsolicited footage was not possible. But now Watson, which can measure racket speed, foot movement and accuracy, can alert him whether there is video worth watching.

Minor League Baseball this week begins a team reaffiliation period that could levy sizable changes across the organization.

Major and minor league teams are allowed to seek new affiliate partners each September in even-numbered years, and the 2018 period running through Sept. 30 is expected to produce at least a dozen shifts.

That number would equal the number of changes in the 2016 cycle. But unlike that prior reaffiliation window that was almost entirely concentrated on the Class A level, this year’s cycle is already set to alter the landscape of the Class AAA Pacific Coast League.

Open Affiliations

Class AAA teams without a set MLB partner for 2019
■ Fresno
■ Las Vegas
■ Nashville
■ Round Rock
■ San Antonio
■ Tacoma
 
MLB teams without a set Class AAA partner for 2019
■ Houston
■ Milwaukee
■ Oakland
■ Seattle
■ Texas
■ Washington

The key catalyst in the PCL changes will be the Las Vegas 51s, which have been affiliated with the New York Mets for the past six seasons. The Mets last year purchased the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs in an effort to bring its top minor league affiliate much closer to Citi Field beginning in 2019. That purchase forces the Washington Nationals to seek a new partner at that level of play and leaves the 51s open to partner with another MLB club.

On top of being a geographically unattractive option for East Coast MLB teams, the 51s historically were also not a favored option for major league affiliates due to the outdated Cashman Field. But the 51s are set to open a new state-of-the-art ballpark next spring and introduce a new team name. And with Las Vegas now home to the NHL’s Golden Knights and soon the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, the market now presents a variety of new opportunities for minor league development.

The 51s’ forthcoming new stadium is consistent with an increasing demand by major league clubs to see upgraded facilities among their minor league affiliates. That same demand was part of the Class AAA Pawtucket Red Sox’s planned move to Worcester, Mass.

“The quality of the minor league facility is increasingly a key factor in who major league clubs choose to work with along with, of course, geography and working relationships,” said Tim Brunswick, MiLB vice president of baseball and business operations.

Beyond the 51s, the California-based Elmore Sports Group will be a center of change in this reaffiliation cycle. The longtime owner of minor league baseball and hockey franchises is relocating the Class AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox to San Antonio, the existing Class AA San Antonio Missions to Amarillo, Texas., and the Rookie-level Helena (Mont.) Brewers to Colorado Springs.

None of the three have major league partners set for 2019, and those relocations could prompt further affiliate changes. In addition to Las Vegas and San Antonio, four other PCL clubs have open affiliations, with the Houston Astros in particular strongly rumored to be planning to leave Fresno and return their top affiliation to Round Rock, Texas.

Interactive displays are just one of the many attractions fans in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland will be able to check out during the tour’s six stops.
Photo: NHL

After finding success traversing North America with a traveling fan tour during its centennial season in 2016-17, the NHL is hoping for the same result when it embarks on a slate of games in Europe starting next week.

The NHL Global Fan Tour will make six stops across Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, all countries that will host NHL exhibition and regular-season games in the month ahead. The tour begins in Nuremberg, Germany, on Sept. 22, followed by stops in Bern, Switzerland; Cologne, Germany; Gothenburg, Sweden; and Berlin, wrapping up on Oct. 13.

The tour will include a variety of hockey- and NHL-themed attractions, including an interactive museum that features the Stanley Cup and an exhibit from the Hockey Hall of Fame highlighted by memorabilia from notable European-born NHL players. Similar to the North American tour, the European tour also will feature a variety of games where fans can test their hockey skills.

Jaka Lednik, NHL group vice president of international strategy, said the league is looking to more deeply engage with overseas fans.

“For European fans, they can see our games on TV during the week, there are official NHL websites dedicated to the fans there in different languages, and we have games again in Europe,” said Lednik, who joined the league last year after working at the Boston Consulting Group. “But what we really want to do over the next couple of years is help them engage with the NHL in ways that North American fans can as well and help them get a bit closer to the action.”

Lednik noted that the league is looking at the European tour as a pilot program but has high hopes for stops in markets it thinks are already ripe with NHL fandom.

“We really want to find out what our fans in Europe are interested in seeing — is it about the history of the league and the teams? Is it to get to know the players better? Is it simply about getting a stick in their hands and letting them play?” Lednik said. “We know they’ve had ways to engage with the NHL in the past. Now it’s about introducing more touchpoints and more frequency.”

The European tour also will allow the NHL to engage more deeply with some of its global partners, as well as letting new European-based companies get a glimpse of the league’s reach.

Existing NHL global partners Adidas, Apple, EA Sports, ORG Packaging and SAP are all expected to be featured during the European tour, while Upper Deck will provide fans with customized cards. In addition, energy drink company Nocco will sponsor the tour and do sampling of its drinks at stops, and Hankook Tire also will activate along the tour. The NHL’s deal with Bridgestone gives it exclusive tire rights in North America.

Mark Black, NHL vice president of international operations, said that it’s also a pilot tour for the league in terms of activating in Europe, where there have been few prior efforts. “We’re learning more about the markets we’re going to be doing the tour in — for example, there are different guidelines that we need to understand what we’re allowed to do and what fans want us to do,” Black said.

Lednik said that given this is the first iteration of this tour, the league will base its success off several measurements, including social discussion around the stops, how sponsors react to the engagement, actual foot traffic and the ability for the event to also help deepen the connection to the sport as well as with local federations and teams in the cities. The NHL is funding the tour and worked with M&C Saatchi on its development. The league declined to comment on the cost of the endeavor.