How the US Open Has Cracked the Future of Sports Coverage

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on September 3, 2012

From The News Desk

IBM’s US Open app has everything your run-of-the-mill tennis nut would want.

It has live streaming of matches (at least on weekends), scores, news, and brief bios of the players. If I feel like taking a break from Maria Sharapova shrieking at Green Day levels on every groundstroke, I can toggle to a men’s match in Armstrong Stadium, or a mixed doubles set in the Grandstand, or view games between guys I never heard of on one of the outer courts.

As with digital video recorders, I can go back to previous sets or matches played on that court and pull up a player’s match record, tournament earnings, age, and nationality. If my 6-year-old nephew flings a toaster into the bathtub I can pause the action and return to the match, when I’m satisfied no one’s been electrocuted.

During a match I can engorge my inner sports geek by clicking on stats like a running tally of aces Andy Roddick has served in his first two sets and the number of double faults, first serve percentage, the percentage of points he’s won when he gets his first serve in, and how many he wins on his second.

There’s also a “keys to the match” function, which IBM claims deploys “predictive analysis” to determine, for example, that Sharapova, if she expected to win her match against Nadia Petrova, needed to win 58 percent of rallies lasting between 5 and 8 shots and 35 percent second serve points. Kind of like "Moneyball" statistical analysis applied to tennis matches. And unlike the days when my sole viewing source was TV, I have the ability to switch devices. I could start a match on my iPad, switch to my laptop if my kids wanted to play Angry Birds, then tune in on my iPhone if we went to the store to shop for a new toaster.

With most of my US Open viewing occurring on my iPad, it occurred to me how far sports coverage has come and how much better it could one day be. Not long ago I — and every other tennis fan — was stuck watching whichever matches network brass deemed most worthy at the time it took place. It was a passive activity. They broadcast coverage, we watched. Now I can take my viewing into my own hands.

So what will tennis programming look like five years from now, or even 10?

First, it probably won’t remain free. There’s money to be made in providing deeper coverage and there could be several tiers. Personally, I’d pay for a special premium viewers’ package of the US Open. Say, $100 for the two-week tournament. With that I would expect that I would have access to live streaming of every match, and be able to watch every match that had already been played, too.

Also, there should be abridged versions of matches where the action is compressed into 30 minutes so I could scout a player and get the highlights, as well as flash highlights of a match. I’d want video profiles of the coaches, and inside-the-lines portraits of the staff that make a tennis tournament possible — the umpires, line judges, ball boys: how did they get there, where did they learn their skills, etc. There should be scouting reports of each player — his strengths, weaknesses, what kinds of strategies have worked against him the past. And because we are all voyeurs at heart, I’d want video segments that show me what it’s like to be a touring pro, both top-seeded players and ones that barely crack 200 in the ATP rankings. Think of all this as the reality shows behind the reality of pursuing a career in tennis.

Because tennis is partly aspirational (believe me, I’d love to be able to just once in my life rip a Federer-like forehand down the line) a pro tennis tips feature would be fantastic. There could be a series of videos that dissect every aspect of playing — from volleys to overheads to kick serves, one- and two-handed backhands, and strategy — and primers on how to play doubles, for instance. Pay extra and you could send a video of yourself playing to a certified coach who would offer professional feedback. Maybe there could be a GPS component to the app, so I could find out what kinds of players at my level and above live nearby and schedule games or hitting sessions. Meanwhile, a classifieds section might list local coaches, used racquets and equipment for sale, apparel and footwear, and a ticket swap in case I can’t use the grounds pass I bought.

This is just tennis. Imagine what you could do for football. Cameras and mics embedded in players’ helmets, instant dissection of every defense and offense as they unfold, data that calculates the energy created when two 320-pound lineman running a 4.4 forty collide, the speed and trajectory of a Peyton Manning pass.

Talk about being inside the action. I can hardly wait.