Centre Court at Rod Laver Arena is packed with people, but it’s deafeningly silent in here. The thwack of ball on racquet, followed by the grunts of players serveing, only punctuate the collective quiet of 1000 people eagerly watching on. What the players can’t hear, however, is that everyone around them is actually talking. Shouting in fact. It’s the first year that the Australian Open has gotten “serious” with Twitter, and a new age of the People’s Tournament has taken over. But not everyone is playing along, with broadcast partners still resisting change. Welcome to the secret war for the people's tennis.
Time! calls the umpire. The players take to the court once again and the din of spectators hushes into a quiet, respectful hum. All over the arena, phones are being unlocked, and people are talking about the game on Twitter using the hashtag #AusOpen.
Millions of Tweets, Vines, Instagrams and Facebook posts have been shared over the last week, with millions more to come as we move into finals week. A different conversation is going on underneath everyone’s seats, however.
Deep inside a bunker secreted beneath Rod Laver Arena is a state-of-the-art mobile data centre built into a broom cupboard, and a squad of IBM engineers who travel the world to cover sporting events like the Australian Open.
They bring along equipment with which to measure everything relating to a player and his or her match. Every piece of data, every ball placement, every fault, serve and speed is tabulated.
As recently as a year ago, it used to be that the data wasn’t available to anyone but broadcasters, players and coaching staff. It was used as the competitive edge, both for broadcasters like Channel Seven and for the racket-wielders taking to the court.
But before a ball was even tossed at this year’s Open, meetings kicked off between Tennis Australia and Twitter Australia. The organisers wanted to get people talking in the stadium and around the world, not with their mouths, but with their phones, tablets and laptops.
The Australian Open organisers wanted to the most engaging tournament in the world. Bigger than Wimbledon and Roland Garros. So they beefed up their social staff to share everything generated by the Open: data, replays, videos of ball boys being hit in the head (ouch). Vines were being shared from behind the scenes as players left the arena victorious, and press conferences were opened up to anyone with an @name. Wi-Fi around the grounds and inside the arenas has been doubled and strengthened so that everyone has the network capacity to share what they're capturing.
They even opened up a social hub where tennis stars, their entourage and assorted celebrities like Aussie surfer Sally Fitzgibbon can come and be interviewed with questions streaming in from global fans using the #AusOpen hashtag.
— Luke Hopewell (@lukehopewell) January 21, 2014
As a result, 2.4 million tweets have been sent during the tournament's first week alone. — a 23 per cent increase compared to week one last year. Serena Williams' shock upset to Ana Ivanovic saw 10,080 tweets per minute being sent, making Ana the number one most mentioned player on Twitter so far, followed by Roger Federer.
All of a sudden, the data which once was held hostage and used only for the fancy graphics has been made available to everyone. So too has access to some of the world’s biggest sporting stars, who are now instructed to Tweet and “engage” with their fans who are talking at them from the stands.
But not everyone’s happy with the People’s Tournament.
It’s not an implicit dislike, but you feel it everywhere when you’re watching the tennis, either at home or in the arena.
Rather than ask social questions to viewers at home using Twitter hashtags, they’re pushed into the Fango catch up experience which isn’t as widely used. Broadcast partners make the Australian Open search spectators at the gates for long-lensed cameras which may be used to replicate the images they’re taking, and the grounds around the tournament are peppered with seemingly innocuous areas that cannot be photographed due to restrictions from broadcast partners.
I can’t show you this photo for example, because the area in question is off-limits to photography.
Even online streaming is problematic. Channel Seven won’t allow Aussies to stream the tennis from the Australian Open website, nor will it provide them with an online feed to view at their desks. It’s all about domestic TV ratings and funnelling everyone into the old media way of doing things.
It’s certainly within Channel Seven’s best interests to safeguard its hundred million dollar investment in the Tennis rights, but it's losing the battle for eyeballs by turning tail and running in the opposite direction to how fans interact with their favourite game.
Online socialites get a richer experience than networks can provide, like social interviews with Andy Murray’s mum, Judy. She’s talking about her Fed Cup team, and about what Andy likes to do while he’s not playing (board games, dominos and golf, mostly). That interview is streamed live around the world for all to see.
While it’s taking place, players and other celebs are straddling a giant physical hashtag placed outside on the grounds, and people are walking by, taking photos, and resharing everything they see.
Now Twitter is having similar meetings with other Australian sporting codes to try and replicate the same success the Australian Open is enjoying.
People are drawn to social media in sports like lightning to a rod. All television networks need to do to stay relevant is find out how to bottle that enthusiasm. That’s the only game that matters from now on.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Twitter.