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Service & Return

Service & Return

Hosting the Australian Open might sound glamorous, but for Tennis Australia it also means coping with the mother of all seasonal spikes.

Tennis Australia has a split personality. For half the year the organisation is the mild-mannered governing body of tennis in Australia - supervising its 50,000 affiliated tennis clubs, selecting the country's Davis Cup squad, officiating local competitions and generally encouraging people to get out on the court. But with the warm weather come the big-money contests of the summer circuit and Tennis Australia shifts into high gear. As the season's premier event, the Australian Open, approaches, Tennis Australia transforms from a small organisation with only 80 permanent staff into the host of one of the world's highest-profile sporting events. Along the way its employee ranks swell with an additional 4000 casual and contract workers, ranging from ball persons, locker room attendants and match officials to Web site designers and television graphics specialists.

"We're a seasonal business, so it's vital that we bring in people and resources to cope with our peak periods," says Chris Simpfendorfer, IT director for Tennis Australia.

Simpfendorfer describes the Australian Open as "a coming together of sport, entertainment and technology", and indeed, technology now plays a vital role in nearly every aspect of the tournament, from the electronic scoring system down on the court to the tournament's official Web site and even SMS updates sent to fans' mobile phones. IBM, the Open's official information technology provider, supplies Tennis Australia's IT infrastructure for the tournament as a utility-type service. Under the arrangement, IBM provides equipment and staff expertise for the collection of results and statistics; supplies information and graphics to television broadcasters and other media; distributes tournament data through information terminals located around Melbourne Park; and designs, develops and hosts the event's official Web site.

Advantage: Contractors

Making it all run without a hitch is a tall order, especially for an organisation which has only eight full-time IT staff. That's where outside specialists - hired by Tennis Australia in droves - enter the picture. During the tournament, around 50 local and imported technical staff are brought in to handle IT chores, with many more people assisting in data collection courtside.

"You don't need to employ someone for a year if you only need them for two weeks," Simpfendorfer says. Case in point: television graphics experts who, for obvious reasons, are needed only during the tournament's brief run. "We use them, take advantage of their knowledge, and then send them on their way," Simpfendorfer says.

Relying on outside expertise suits Tennis Australia perfectly, Simpfendorfer says. For one, the organisation is not burdened with staff it does not need. More importantly, the specialists temporarily employed by Tennis Australia go on to work at other big-name sporting events throughout the year, including other Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Each year, these people return to Australia full of new ideas and with valuable experience acquired during their work at other international sporting events.

Nevertheless, dealing with such a large number of hired guns comes with its own share of difficulties. Simpfendorfer insists that managing the Open's multitude of technological projects remains his biggest challenge.

"With an event like the Australian Open, we get one chance to do it each year, and if you miss a deadline, then you've effectively missed your chance for another 12 months," he says. "It's critical to hit those target dates, so a lot of time and effort is put into ensuring that not only are projects running on time, but that the people working on them have ample time for testing and ironing out any shortcomings in the system before we go into production for the tournament."

Not an easy task when you consider that many of the people working on projects for this year's Australian Open are spread throughout the globe. On the morning he spoke to CIO, Simpfendorfer had just finished an 8am conference call with the Open's results team in Jacksonville, Florida. The day before it was a call to the Web team in Atlanta. Before that it was the interactive television team in London.

"While there are advances we've all taken advantage of in the last couple of years, like e-mail and the Internet, it's still not always as good as getting on the phone or being able to sit down face to face with somebody and discuss a particular issue," he says. "Something that may take 10 minutes to discuss with somebody can often take weeks of e-mails before you get to the same point. The early morning phone call to one of our teams somewhere in the world is a pretty common event in my life at the moment. It's very difficult doing business in that way, but it's something you've got to learn to deal with."

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