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“It’s a playground for us” | How SAP’s sponsorship of the WTA is driving innovation in technology and sport

  • SAP partnership led to change in WTA’s rules regarding on-court coaching
  • Deep integration with sports partners provides marketing platform for B2B software solutions
  • Technological innovation helping distinguish WTA from competition and attract new audiences 

German software brand SAP has a long and wide-ranging history of sports sponsorship, having partnered with teams and rights-holders at the highest level of football, sailing, equestrianism, NFL and beyond.

None of its partnerships across any of these properties have had quite the impact of its collaboration with the Women’s Tennis Association, however, which in 2015 saw a rule change implemented based on the technology provided by SAP. The WTA rewrote its on-court coaching regulations, allowing coaches to use live, in-game data and analysis, provided by SAP software on tablets, to advise their players. 

In 2008, when the WTA first began experimenting with on-court coaching, it was simply to let coaches provide advice to players based on their own observation from the stands, with part of the thinking being that allowing coaches to make tactical changes in-game would enliven matches and add personality to TV broadcasts. But after signing the partnership with SAP in 2013, both parties saw an opportunity for innovation – something Milan Cerny, director of strategic partnerships at SAP global sponsorships, says was key to the initial signing of the deal. 

“The WTA is a strong partner because it’s always the leading women’s professional league in the world,” he says, “but also because they’ve very forward thinking and they constantly want to innovate within their sport and for their fans. We demand this from every partnership we’re in, we want to work with partners who want to take advantage of what SAP is offering.” 

Patterns of Play

While each of SAP’s partnerships in various sports fulfils a unique purpose within the brand’s portfolio, all, ultimately, “are focused on technology integration and technology collaboration, on demonstrating what our technology can do”, says Cerny.

In 2017, the firm’s new head of global sponsorships, Bjoern Ganzhorn, laid out the company’s three-level sponsorship strategy, outlining the areas he wanted the brand to focus on. As Cerny explains: “We always look at every partnership from three different angles. The first is to look at player and team performance improvements. The second is, what can we do for the fans and the people consuming the sport? And finally, how can we help the partner to run that business better?

“So in all our sponsorships we look at the pitch, the fans, and the boardroom. And depending on the sport, one, two or all three of those would be the focus.”

Cerny points to SAP’s involvement in various sailing competitions as a “pioneering project” in this regard. The company developed a piece of software, SAP Sailing Analytics, which, through boat-tracking technology and in-depth data analysis of things like wind conditions, allowed event organisers to offer a much more complete experience to fans and new ways of assessing performance for sailors.

When it came to the WTA partnership, SAP chose to focus on the performance side, where the company had spotted an opportunity. “Tennis was becoming more and more data-driven, there were more and more data points being collected all the time,” Cerny says. “So we were very much focused on: what can we do for the coaches, how can we help them harness that data and use it to improve performance?”

SAP’s latest technological offering for the WTA is called Patterns of Play, a platform which brings even greater levels of depth to the in-game analysis that can be performed by coaches and will be available from the start of the 2020 tennis season. Taking in data from across an entire match, Patterns of Play allows players and coaches to analyse both their own and their opponents’ performances during rallies. 

SAP’s Patters of Play software allows coaches to analyse their player’s – and opponent’s – performances mid-rally

Cerny explains: “If I’m a coach, I can go through a number of matches, aggregate the data from that, and think, okay, if she serves wide, how does this particular opponent respond? Does my player have a particular play pattern that she uses in this scenario? Does that change at certain scores? So it’s really about being able to simulate conditions and and discover those patterns.”

What’s interesting about the software from SAP’s perspective, says Cerny, is the fact that the data used by Patterns of Play was already available – it just wasn’t being presented in a way that was useable or accessible to players and coaches. “What it shows is that it’s not always about getting more and more data points,” he says. “It’s about putting the data into smart queries, asking the right questions of the data. What we’re doing here with the WTA is demonstrating the flexibility of the platform and the fact that we can cater to almost any needs.”

B2B platform

The solutions supplied to the WTA are a combination of pre-existing SAP products and bespoke software designed for the needs of the rights-holder and coaches but, as Cerny points out, “even the custom-made software has to run on our platform. So even though we always work with a mix, everything that we do for the WTA is, at its core, running on the SAP Cloud platform and SAP HANA technology.”

This is important in ensuring that SAP is able to extract a return on investment from its sponsorships. “Of course we are committed to helping the properties we sponsor, but we also need to make sure we are using these as a platform for our products,” he explains. “SAP is a B2B company; we provide solutions to businesses, not consumers. It’s harder for us than for B2C brands to really get that visibility to an end consumer and to communicate what we do to a big amount of people. 

“We know when we roll something out that it is working for coaches, there is demand from them and we get great feedback. But it has to be communicated to the outside world, so that we also get the reach and the numbers and the sentiment around the brand. That is ultimately the goal for the partnership. Sometimes the biggest question we face is, ‘what’s the connection between SAP and the WTA? What do they actually do?’”

The change to the on-court coaching rule offered a unique opportunity to offer an answer to that question, and for SAP to integrate itself deeply into the property it was sponsoring – something that had become a target for the brand when it set out its new sponsorship strategy in 2011. 

“Our goal is always to use these partnerships to promote and market out technology and our innovation” says Cerny. “But at the same time, eight years ago, we took the approach of changing our strategy and going away from approaching sponsorships as a pure logo placement and hospitality exercise towards a true collaboration and co-innovation activity. We wanted to work with our partners to really provide a platform for real-world application of products.”

That strategy ultimately means that SAP is getting more from its partnerships as well, by developing software for specific problems in the world of sport that end up providing solutions in other areas. “Of course, it enables us to showcase latest technology, but it also allows us to develop new concepts in analytics, concepts in machine learning moving forward, and things like that,” says Cerny.

“It’s a playground for us to experiment, but it’s also addressing a particular need on the WTA side. So it goes beyond just building cases for demo purposes, it’s actually approaching real challenges of the business, which in this case is the WTA, using our flexibility and our product, our software and technology, to solve those challenges.”

Audience appeal

The on-court coaching rule in the WTA has proved controversial among tennis purists, especially since the introduction of the in-game analysis provided by SAP. Neither the ATP nor any of the four Grand Slams have moved to introduce on-court coaching, with many feeling that it detracts from tennis’ nature as a mental battle as much as a physical one between two players. 

Cerny argues that the integration of such analysis is an inevitability, however, given the accessibility and proliferation of the data, and is something that will eventually become more accepted as younger generations of fans come to expect it.

“One of the WTA’s goals when they started this partnership with us was that they wanted ensure women’s tennis remains a progressive, forward-thinking sport moving into the future,” he says. “They want to prevent their fanbase from ageing too much, and they want to attract more young people. They aren’t just bringing SAP technology in to help the coaches, they want it to help their product as well and make women’s tennis an appealing sport to as wide an audience as possible.” 

Former WTA world number one Angelique Kerber is an SAP ambassador (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

SAP has significant interests in esports, partnering with major events organisers ESL and DreamHack, and Cerny says it has looked towards that emerging space for lessons in how to engage younger audiences in its traditional sports sponsorships.

“In esports, clearly you have a very young, very tech-savvy demographic,” he says. “What we’ve found is that it’s imperative to be absolutely clear in your communications around what your technology is achieving, and also that it’s an extremely demanding community. They want to see the benefit from everything, which as a sponsor actually plays into our hands a little bit – they don’t mind a sponsor coming in, as long as they can see that the sponsor is providing value to them and to the sport. 

“I think that is something that we achieve in tennis, so then it becomes about how we tell that story to a wider audience by working with the WTA on their communication strategy, how we weave into those communicative assets.” 

To that end, SAP also has partnerships with Angelique Kerber, the three-time Grand Slam winning WTA star and her former coach Wim Fissette, who has also worked with the likes of Kim Clijsters, Simona Halep and Johanna Konta. “These are the people that we then leverage as ambassadors to the wider world for the technology development we do with the WTA. Fissette can speak very well to the projects we do for the coaches, he really serves as a spokesperson for the coaching community, which is invaluable.

“As long as we achieve the goals we set out to achieve with the WTA, and for them, I think that’s that that’s a great story for us, which then in return can be communicated and told to our customers, who then get the story about how SAP technology is being used to achieve those goals.”

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