When you think of IBM, or Big Blue as it’s dubbed, you think of the hardware and software it manufactures, its foray into cloud computing, even the company’s recent partnership with Apple to bring “made-for-business” apps to the masses.
But what you probably don’t think about is the 104-year-old behemoth’s thriving past and present in sports: For the last 25 years, it’s been powering tennis’ biggest tournaments, including the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon.
Noah Syken, a vice president of global sponsorship overseeing IBM’s sports and entertainment branch, explained IBM’s work with tennis to Fortune in the days leading up to the year’s final major tournament in Flushing Meadows, Queens.
Big Blue’s partnership with the United States Tennis Association, which hosts the U.S. Open each year, runs two-fold. First, the tech giant provides the infrastructure that displays scores on-court and supports the tournament’s websites. That relates closely to its second goal of providing an enhanced experience for fans not only on the grounds of the tournament but also for those accessing the U.S. Open’s digital content around the world from its website, mobile apps, and video streaming.
At first, Syken explained, IBM focused on how to display a tennis score online back in the 1990s, the consumer Internet’s early days. “Obviously the world has changed a lot since then,” he said. “Now it’s really about the fan.”
IBM’s tennis work now centers on tracking individual player and game data and presenting it in an easily packaged way for fans. For instance, it unveiled a “SlamTracker” application in recent years that lets you see just how fast Serena Williams struck her last serve, how many forehand winners Roger Federer has hit, and even provides predictions based on historical data to get a better sense of whether Novak Djokovic can beat Andy Murray yet again.
Both IBM and the USTA, a non-profit, declined to comment on the length of their contract or disclose financials. Nicole Jeter West, the USTA’s managing director of ticketing and digital strategy, who works closely with IBM, described it simply as a “long-term agreement.”
Thumb through IBM’s 2014 annual report and there’s no mention of its sports and entertainment work, which also includes the U.S. Open and Masters major golf tournaments. Why? Because it likely represents a very small amount for a tech giant that brought in around $93 billion in revenue in 2014.
Tennis’ relationship with technology has had a few kinks. There’s an elitist, country club feel to the sport, and that doesn’t align well with tech culture. Earlier this year, Forbes published a post criticizing the sport for its lack of innovation. The U.S. Open and the other major tennis tournaments have improved in recent years, though, with the 2006 introduction of a system using Hawk-Eye computer technology that allows players to correct calls through the use of cameras that can track a tennis ball’s trajectory. If a player thinks a linesman or chair umpire gets a call wrong, he or she can get a double check from Hawk-Eye.
In August, the Women’s Tennis Association began to allow the use of iPads with SAP-provided data at smaller events for coaches to talk statistics with their players. But in terms of the data and tech at major tournaments, IBM runs the show.
Not everyone is pleased. Jeff Sackmann, an author and entrepreneur who runs tennis analytics website Tennis Abstract, wants to have another voice in the sports data conversation. He uses an army of volunteers (a smaller group than the dozens of IBM staffers at major tennis events) to chart professional matches through a spreadsheet he created (you can view it here). He explained in an email to Fortune from Istanbul that tennis “misses a big opportunity” by outsourcing its data collection to a sponsor,” especially by not making it readily available to fans. “As other sports, especially baseball, seem to understand, making data accessible to fans both increases engagement with the game and adds to our understanding of the sport,” he wrote. “None of the major tennis organizations (ITF, ATP, WTA, USTA, etc.) seem to have bought into that philosophy.”
Jeter West, the USTA’s director in charge of digital operations, maintains that the partnership with IBM has improved the fan experience. And IBM’s Syken said that IBM often tests new capabilities at the Australian Open and the French Open, which are then implemented at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Going forward, IBM and the USTA may expand their partnership and offer data to junior players vying to one day join the professional ranks or recreational players looking to improve at the club level. Jeter West said that the USTA and IBM are in early conversations to use connected devices that gather player data at the upcoming Lake Nona USTA headquarters, which is expected to be completed in late 2016.
IBM launched a health care unit earlier this year, and the company is interested in using its data to support youth tennis and wellbeing. Both Jeter West and Syken declined to offer details as they both said they’re still in early talks.
Partnerships between IBM, the U.S. Open, and the other major tennis events will likely only get stronger, given that there are simply no other options. “Compared to other major sports—particularly American team sports—tennis has long been behind the times when it comes to statistics and analytics,” he said. “The data that IBM collects during the Grand Slams is a positive in that regard. If IBM weren’t collecting it, it’s very possible that no one else would be.”