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The Centre Court role of intellectual property at Wimbledon

The Centre Court role of intellectual property at Wimbledon

News 17/07/2023

One of the most iconic tournaments in the global sporting calendar, The Championships, commonly referred to as Wimbledon, recently concluded, leaving tennis enthusiasts captivated by its prestigious matches and showcasing a remarkable display of sponsorship relationships and state-of-the-art technologies.

Here, we delve into the fascinating world of intellectual property (IP) at Wimbledon and explore how it shapes the tournament's identity and technological advancements. From the enduring Slazenger-Wimbledon partnership to patented technologies in tennis ball manufacturing and the revolutionary Hawk-Eye computer vision system, we examine the critical role of IP in ensuring the excellence and innovation that define Wimbledon. Join us on this journey as we uncover the captivating intersection of IP and one of the most iconic sporting events in the world.

The Slazenger-Wimbledon Partnership

Slazenger and Wimbledon boast the world’s longest-running sports sponsorship of all time, with Wimbledon having appointed the British company as their official supplier of tennis balls in 1902 at the request of champion tennis players. 121 years on, Slazenger tennis balls are considered world-standard, and their strong and historic association with the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world is certainly instrumental in establishing this image. The involvement of intellectual property (IP) protection in sport via trade marks and patents is vital in fortifying the standing of such distinguished events as Wimbledon.

Intellectual Property Concepts: Trade Marks and Patents

Intellectual property generally refers to creations of the mind which can be protected by law. IP is a valuable asset which allows people to receive recognition and commercial gain from their inventions. Trade marks distinguish goods or services from others, and provide companies an image of uniqueness and legitimacy. Patents are exclusive rights granted for inventions, essentially allowing the patent holder the right to prohibit the use, manufacture, and sale of their invention by others for a limited period, typically 20 years. In return, technical information regarding the invention is made publicly available. In these ways, IP protection fosters creativity and drives innovation.

Patented Technologies in Tennis Ball Manufacturing

While Slazenger naturally benefits from their close ties to Wimbledon, The Championships also redeem the perks of some of the best technology available in the sport from this partnership. Such cutting-edge innovation requires protection in the form of trade marks, and, of course, patents. Slazenger openly promotes their key technologies involved in the manufacture of their tennis balls. The renowned yellow Wimbledon balls were first introduced in 1986. Since their debut, this hallmark appearance has been achieved using an exclusive Ultra Vis™ dye and formerly patented process to create balls that provide maximum visibility for players and spectators. The colour of tennis balls switched from the traditional white to yellow because of the human eye’s hypersensitivity to yellow light as compared to white light. The process using Ultra Vis dye specifies a shade of yellow with a wavelength between 500 and 560 nm where maximum reflectance and the fluorescent yellow colour so distinct on the Wimbledon courts is achieved.

The outdoor nature of lawn tennis necessitates a water-repellent element in tennis balls, especially given the UK’s affinity for rain. Hydroguard™ is Slazenger’s patented technology which repels up to 70% more water than any standard tennis ball. Hydroguard is a registered trade mark of Cosmostar Singapore Private Ltd, a leading worldwide textile manufacturing company. The technology has multiple applications and is also used in footwear and apparel. Hydroguard itself is a watertight polyurethane membrane with high stretchability, covered in billions of microscopic pores too small for water molecules to permeate. This multifunctional technology contributes balls with longer-lasting durability to the sport and enhances the overall quality of the game from a technical and equipment-focused standpoint. These examples of patent-protected technology are indicative of why Slazenger remains Wimbledon’s first choice over 100 years down the line.

The Hawk-Eye Computer Vision System

Outside of Slazenger’s relationship with Wimbledon, other technological advancements are intrinsic in what is considered the modern game. Hawk-Eye™, is an instant replay computer system used in a variety of sports including cricket, association football, and of course – tennis. Hawk-Eye, aptly named, visually tracks the trajectory of the ball, and displays to spectators and adjudicators the ball’s most likely path as a moving image. This system was developed in 2000 by Paul Hawkins and David Sherry, both former engineers at Roke Manor Research Ltd, based in Hampshire, England. A patent application for Hawk-Eye was submitted by Hawkins and Sherry but was subsequently withdrawn. Hawk-Eye was sold to Japanese tech-giant Sony in March 2011. Several major tennis tournaments, namely Wimbledon, the Australian Open, and the Queen’s Club Championships, have implemented Hawk-Eye in their television coverage, thereby proving the system to be a prominent tool in the sport. It is not generally used in clay court tournaments - the French Open being one notable example - because the mark left in the clay by the ball alone is typically quite accurate.

In tennis, The Challenge System has been used in tandem with Hawk-Eye since 2006. Wimbledon employed Hawk-Eye on Centre Court and Court 1 to aid umpiring, with each player permitted three incorrect challenges per set. The first Hawk-Eye challenge to ever be made was by Teymuraz Gabashvili in his match against Roger Federer, and in a finals match between Federer and Rafael Nadal, Nadal also challenged a shot. The shot was called out despite Hawk-Eye displaying the ball as just clipping the line but ultimately ‘in’ by 1 millimetre. Realistically, the idea of being ‘in by 1 millimetre’ at a lawn tennis tournament like Wimbledon, where the edge of a line painted on grass cannot be defined so accurately, does not exist.

Criticism of Hawk-Eye Technology

There are pitfalls to this technology. The system’s advertised 3.6 millimetre average error margin in tennis has been criticised by some commentators as being too large. Conversely, some acknowledge the remarkable 3.6 millimetre accuracy, although note that this is only for the witnessed trajectory of the ball. Despite this, Hawk-Eye used in tennis has no zone of uncertainty and therefore no recognition of any associated error because the system relies on a modelled reconstruction to decide whether the ball is ‘in’ or ‘out’. The publicly displayed replay footage of a Hawk-Eye result only declares whether the ball is ‘in’ or ‘out’ and has no indication of confidence intervals or error margins associated with the reconstruction of the ball’s trajectory and ground impact. The absence of this information is likely to cause issues for the public perception of Hawk-Eye, as it appears more like the ‘decision maker’ than the ‘decision aid’, to the point that questioning the accuracy of this technology becomes no longer relevant. Hawk-Eye is by and large trusted as an impartial second opinion but is by no means infallible, so it is safe to say that line umpires are here to stay and the likes of Hawk-Eye have plenty of room for improvement. Still, it is a tool that has changed the way sport is officiated and spectated for ever.

The Overall Impact of IP Protection

Sport continues to be revolutionised by technology. In a climate of rapid globalisation, it is striking to observe so much British innovation involved in such a quintessentially British event. The partnership between Slazenger and Wimbledon spanning over a century is a clear reflection of that, as well as the Hawk-Eye system developed here at the turn of the millennium. By employing Ultra Vis™ and Hydroguard™ for the manufacture of Wimbledon tennis balls, both spectators and the players themselves benefit from a more refined tennis experience. While Hawk-Eye leaves much to be questioned pertaining to its accuracy, and attracts its fair share of criticism, it is still a valuable addition to the sporting world and has challenged how various sports are adjudicated. The innovation fuelled by the shield that IP protection affords companies also equips them with the ability to contribute brilliant inventions to the sector, and subsequently the public sphere.

Even upon patent expiry, trade mark protection upholds brand image and identity in spite of the public domain status of a given technology, further highlighting the lasting power of IP protection. Technological advancements which serve to propel the game to new levels of sophistication are facilitated by IP protection and enforcement. Ultimately, intellectual property protection is an integral part of what makes Wimbledon the tournament we know and love.

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