Summer in the United Kingdom is always headlined by one marquee event: Wimbledon. From the ‘who’s who’ of celebrities crowding around the Royal Box to strawberries and cream, The Championships is an event with an impact extending beyond London.
June 29 should have marked the first day of the 2020 Championships, with Novak Djokovic and Simona Halep looking to defend their respective titles. Instead, the entire tournament remains on the sidelines as it endures its first cancellation since 1945.
Without live matches, the All England Lawn and Tennis Club – the home site for Wimbledon – has resorted to other digital offerings to make up for the loss.
Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content and digital for the AELTC, said that the usage of archival footage is nothing new – it’s frequently leaned on during Wimbledon’s numerous rain delays. However, as she started looking for ways to still engage with followers, she did not want the AELTC to be formulaic in how it used its archival library. That led to the creation of The Greatest Championships, done in conjunction with partner IBM as Wimbledon’s first-ever digital recreation of its Championships.
The feature brings together decades of Wimbledon’s best matches – from round one to the finals – for fans to relive. When watching a match, it is similar to how a live one would be shown online: a digital scoreboard showing the game and set scores, point-by-point breakdowns, in-match statistics.
Unlike live matches though, The Greatest Championships also provides post-match quotes from the players, a written narrative of how the match played out, and nonstop coverage.
“What we wanted to do was go further than just rolling out archive matches without much cohesion to them,” Willis said. “We wanted to try and still create that anticipation of there being an event, of there being a tournament that progresses, builds, and gets more and more exciting.”
Wimbledon worked with longtime partner IBM to create The Greatest Championship. Through IBM’s AI technology, it also allowed Wimbledon to remaster some of its older matches from the 1970s and 1980s featuring legends like Steffi Graf and John McEnroe.
“When you think about some of these super athletes who transcended tennis, what a great opportunity to educate other generations on them,” Willis said. “The inspiration was to go way beyond archive to create something compelling that harnesses all of the technology tools available to us.”
Willis and Wimbledon also chose this year’s cancellation as the time for the AELTC to make its first foray into gaming with its Play The Championships contest. The mobile game is a seven-round affair where players can play across each of Wimbledon’s 18 courts with hopes of making it to the final on Centre Court.
With Play The Championships, Willis wanted it to be an easy way for gamers to get more involved with a sport it likely overlooked in the past. In the first three days after its launch, the game neared 100,000 plays.
“We had in mind to create a game that was going to be a simple format, very playable, something that would be a good test of this,” Willis said. “Then, when the cancelation took place, the energy and momentum we were able to put behind the game increased.”
Through the first several days without The Championship, Willis has been encouraged by both Wimbledon’s broadcast and online engagement. The BBC is airing more than 50 hours of Wimbledon programming over the next two weeks, and early figures for this year’s coverage are consistent with first and second-round audiences, Willis said. Social media engagement has also been high – not exceeding what happens when there are actual live events, but still enough to show Willis that fans are not waiting until 2021 to interact with the AELTC.
“When Coco [Gauff] was doing what she did last year against Venus Williams, everyone was stoked on it because it was the most extraordinary moment, and you couldn’t make up what was going to happen next,” Willis said. “Obviously with archival footage and all the other bits and pieces that we’re doing, there’s no substitute for that. But our ambition was really to provide something for our fans to thank them. If we end up getting positive results, then we’ll be thrilled.”