Convergence of the physical and digital worlds

Author: Jure Doler | Read time: 8 min

Australian Open (AO), the first in the Grand Slam tournament series, brought important digital and technological innovations this year. The battle took place not only on tennis courts in Melbourne but also in the parallel world created by new technologies and latest trends. The launch of the AO Art Ball NFT was one that stands out the most – in only twenty minutes, the organisers sold 6,776 NFTs, uniquely designed digital tennis balls made up of generative art, each linked to an individual plot on the official AO court (19cm x19 cm of the tennis court surface). If the winning shot from any of the matches landed on that plot, the NFT metadata was automatically updated in real-time providing the owner with additional utility. There were higher rewards, too: when any of the 11 championship points landed on a particular plot, the corresponding NFT owner received the tennis ball used in the championship point in a specially handcrafted case. This, along with other tech innovations introduced at this year’s Australian Open – metaverse, AO Summer Smash, and audio technology for the blind – were the topics of our conversation with Machar Reid, Head of Innovation at Tennis Australia.

SPORTO: For the first time in history, the Australian Open offered the global audience “The AO Art Ball” – non-fungible tokens (NFTs), where each NFT represents a section of the court. What was the reason behind this decision?

MACHAR REID: We are fundamentally interested in the convergence of the physical and digital worlds, and the opportunities that presents for us as a business. We are also passionate about creating innovative and accessible event experiences for more fans. The launch of the Art Ball NFT and our metaverse at the AO was the perfect way of connecting all of those threads. It very much represented a complementary extension of our immersive experiences in gaming and esports, and promises to morph into something a whole lot bigger at future AOs.

The AO also launched a metaverse experience on the Decentraland platform. How would you describe the overall experience and results, and how did fans accept this initiative?

How would we describe the overall experience and results? Fascinating and compelling – in equal parts. Fascinating, because it gave us an early look at both what is possible in the future from a technology point of view but also the potential shape of consumer behaviour in this immersive world, and compelling in that the metaverse and NFT experience absolutely exceeded our expectations and has already got us thinking about how to iterate, further expand our global audience and support new commercial models at AO 2023.

The metaverse and NFT experience absolutely exceeded our expectations and has already got us thinking about how to iterate, further expand our global audience and support new commercial models at AO 2023.

Both technologies are still in the early phase, although there is already a huge fan base, especially among younger generations. Have you noticed any initial obstacles, for example, did they have any problems connecting Metamask wallets or buying NFTs?

No, not at all. Like with any new tech though, the early adopters find a way to participate. As friction reduces and awareness grows, we expect both the tech and experience to become more mainstream.

Like with any new tech, the early adopters find a way to participate. As friction reduces and awareness grows, we expect both the tech and experience to become more mainstream.

Security is also one of the important aspects. We see a lot of scams and hacks in crypto. What is your take on this?   

Well, we can only speak for ourselves in that regard. We took time to identify best-in-class partners to help us navigate our launch, and then manage the cyber risks of making the experience as captivating and secure as we wanted it to be.

You also launched Action Audio – another new technology that helps the blind and visually impaired follow the tournament in real time by transforming the spatial data into a 3D sound. Is this initiative your answer to the growing audio consumption in the last years?

We are looking short, medium and long term to find new ways to augment the broadcast and to better tailor the magic that happens on the court to all segments of our fan base. Action Audio does just that for the blind and low vision community. You know that there are 285 million people who live with some form of blindness or low vision. The visual and auditory options for them to consume live sport are just so limited, and so it was with great pride that we enabled Action Audio across all centre-court matches at this year’s AO, after successfully launching it in 2021. We saw consumption climb exponentially on last year and consumers from 80+ countries tune in.

Let’s touch on gaming. The AO has reunited with Fortnite for this year’s tournament, offering the AO Summer Xmash 2022. How did both brands leverage this joint venture?

Our multi-year collaboration with Epic Games, where we bring Fortnite to life through the AO Summer Smash, is something we are incredibly proud of. The tournament extends the DNA of the AO as an entertainment experience, and allows us to engage with a new and growing audience of gaming and esports enthusiasts. Epic Games are world leaders at what they do and we look forward to growing the collaboration in the future.

At Tennis Australia, you are following and co-creating tech trends. Do you think blockchain – along with NFTs and metaverse – will play an important role in activations in the future? Or is it just a current hype and it will need more time to be widely adopted?

We are continuing to watch the space with interest, most sports and entertainment properties are. We are also participating – testing, learning and even launching. What we also know is that the web and the blending of our physical and digital worlds will continue to evolve. As part of that future focus, there will be considerable opportunity for fans, players, events and organisations like ours to benefit. It is then a matter of prioritising what is likely to deliver the best and most strategic ROI.

Looking from fans’ perspective, are these early adopters of blockchain also tennis fans? Are they interested in Nadal, Đoković, Barty or Medvedev? Or is this a path to creating and engaging new tennis fans?

There are a few questions wrapped up in one there – in short, our thesis is that audiences will definitely cross over and consume sport/entertainment in different ways as gaming grows, the capture of digital value (in the form of cryptocurrency, NFTs, etc.) normalizes, and immersive experiences like metaverse become higher fidelity and customisable. We are trying to position ourselves as a business – through our event, through our AO media arm and through our venture capital fund called Wildcard Ventures – to capitalize on all of those levels.

In terms of fans and innovations, there are huge changes in sport consumption in general. New-gen fans are more likely to follow Twitch or YouTube personalities than traditional, established media. What approach should be applied and what challenges do you see in this regard?

It is an opportunity. The fans are consuming content – it might be different content or different channels to what have captured the imagination of in previous generations – but it is content all the same. For any rights holder like ourselves, with the ecosystem of partners that we have, it is an amazing opportunity to consider consumer behaviour/fandom, and all that goes with it, in new ways.

To conclude, let’s look at the future. What is before us and why should we be excited (or not) about it?

Immersive and phygital experiences are either with us or knocking on the door. They will only get better and more customisable, allowing consumers to connect with events like never before. Over the past few years, we have provided a window into that world, but there is a heap more to come.

The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 16 (March 2022).