How IT Supports the Big Business of Sports

On the road with the IT team that gathers, processes and disseminates the facts and figures for giant events such as the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

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It's only fitting that, in the city that never sleeps, shut-eye is at a premium for the site team. Unlike the other Grand Slams that IBM covers (Wimbledon, the French and Australian opens), the U.S. Open's matches are played day and night. Add the extra amount of pressure because it's the final Grand Slam of the year and the fervor of the New York City crowds, and you have a recipe for some great, five-hour matches and late, late evenings. Barn burners that go until one or two in the morning at the Open are not out of the ordinary—and the IBM team is there until the last five-setter has been decided.

At any given time during the two-week affair, the U.S. Open site team is crunching the numbers streaming in from each of the 18 tennis courts where matches are being held. Aces, unforced errors, serve speeds, double faults—it's all processed. The data gets to the site team in much the same way it did at the PGA, but because the event has much more going on for a longer period of time, there's much more to do.

Like at the PGA, humans start the process. USTA tournament referees and data entry teams sitting courtside record the statistical details of each point on their ThinkPads—such as Serena Williams's growing number of aces. An automated radar gun captures the speeds of the 100-plus mph serves. All the courtside information is transmitted to the scoring and results center—a stark room filled with racks of ThinkPads—and then dumped into a tournament database and replicated to the backup database. Automated processes continuously broadcast new data across the network to the more than 100 clients on the scoring and results system. (This includes the tournament inquiry systems, the internet war room—and then to—the match update center and the tournament scoreboards.) Each client processes the information for users to view—a media representative logged on to a PC at the Media Center, a fan staring at the scoreboard at Arthur Ashe Stadium, a USA Network or CBS commentator studying the monitor in the broadcast booth. If the technology fails, there won't be any double-fault statistics for TV commentator John McEnroe to tsk-tsk over during the 138 hours of network coverage.

For all of the long hours and complex work, though, you don't hear too many complaints from the members of the site teams. In fact, besides the technology, teamwork is the other main ingredient. "We're careful to pick people who have a strong affinity for the job because good ideas come from people who like this stuff," says Ramminger, who's talking about his team during what would be one of the best matches of the tourney, the Williams versus Seles quarterfinal. In assembling his crew, communications sector executive Ramminger identifies several important rules for handling IT at large, remote events:

Preparation. Be ready for anything at any time, from late nights to natural disasters, like the earthquake at the 1998 Nagano Games or the deluge at the 1998 French Open.

Experience. You need people who know their stuff—not just switches and routers, but aces and bogeys too.

Follow-through. "You need a never-ending attitude striving for perfection," he says. Flexibility. Be limber, whether it's adapting to a new application, business partner or time zone.

But with any team working together for long hours in close quarters, producers Balcom and Childress stress that the team can succeed only if the members are having fun doing their jobs.

Back in the site team bunker, a white-walled room dotted with posters of past U.S. Open champions, the team members are eating cheeseburgers and salads and Executive Producer David Balcom: Planning for heavy traffic, he looks for systems that are watching the scores. These web monkeys, writers, producers, and video and audio techies live, breath, eat and sleep (well, not so much sleep) each event they cover. Getting info to the site is job number one; fans and web users alike have come to expect sports data to be real-time. If not, they'll go somewhere else.

From event to event, new ideas and processes develop. For example, the e-Publisher tool that is now used at each event grew out of processes IBM originally did manually. Demands for the content—from both partnering organizations and users on the website—are high and getting higher. "One of the key things we've learned is to plan for peak traffic, and that means having highly scalable, reliable and redundant systems," says Balcom.

Next Stop: The Ryder Cup

In what proved to be the pivotal match, 17-year-old Williams finished off Seles that autumn evening. She advanced to the finals—narrowly missing a chance Fans and web users alike have come to expect sports data to be real-time. If not, they'll go somewhere play against her sister Venus—and proceeded to upset Martina Hingis and take the U.S. Open women's singles championship.

What's next for Serena? Endorsements, fame, fortune. What's next for the site team? Long hours, more work on those computer tans and little recognition from millions of fans enjoying the fruits of their labor. After the Open they packed up their ThinkPads, cables and servers, and headed up to Boston to cover the Ryder Cup. Then, it's down to Sydney, Australia, for the first Olympic Games of the new millennium and the last Games (for a while) for IBM.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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