- The sports industry is embracing technology such as AI and AR to enhance the fan experience.
- Data that is collected during games and training is being used to improve player performance.
- With technology changing the nature of many codes, success will depend on fan reception.
Whether we realise it or not, technology such as artificial intelligence and VR are already ubiquitous in our everyday lives. While the broader debate swirls around the extent that machines will replace human function, the underlying technology is already at work, altering the way we live and work.
In many ways, the sports industry is at the cutting edge of this change. It has embraced technology to the point that many teams now rely on it to help them win games, improve players’ ability and coaching, manage their operations as well as interact with their fans.
The fourth industrial revolution is upon us, bringing with it unlimited insights from its interconnected everyday data. But when it comes to sports, will this help or hinder fans’ enjoyment of the game?
The competitive edge
is found in data
Data has always played a pivotal role in the development of sport (and devoted sports fans). In the digital age, analytics and the rise of data-gathering technology has transformed the way professionals play, coach, train and recruit. Metrics that were once recorded in a notebook by a coach are now compiled by wearables, GPS, video analysis and sensors.
Team coaches, managers and owners now work with computer scientists to identify factors identified with winning and losing, risk of injury, or that are important for success. It is now possible to capture this information in real time and at scale. With the right data feeds, algorithms deliver statistical reports related to the element they are trying to predict, which then informs an action or strategy to be put in place to prevent an injury, or deliver that elusive one percent advantage.
What’s becoming evident is that success goes well beyond recruiting a few freakishly talented players, and is often found in unlikely places. As highlighted at this year’s Sports Tech Conference in Melbourne, FC Barcelona has invested heavily in building an innovation hub to equip them for the future.1 Their sports technology and innovation team create empirical models that show what players are doing for the 87 minutes of a match when they don’t have the ball.
Hundreds of data points captured in each match are used to better understand player contributions, such as how players create space for others to score goals. FC Barcelona’s team of data scientists developed a method of displaying the models behind ‘players making space’ including tables with player ratings and dynamic heat maps overlaid on video. Coaches took this data to develop tactics that could exploit opposition movement in future games, as well as better understand the contribution of players. Star forward Lionel Messi, for example, has been criticised for not running enough in games. But his space and contribution metrics puts paid to this criticism.
Beyond what’s happening on the field, digitally connected fans are becoming the sports industry’s biggest asset. Stadium owners and teams that provide more personalised digital experiences through stadium apps, digital offers direct to mobile phones, and game information on digital boards can increase fan engagement and generate new revenue opportunities.2
This summer in Australia, fans tuning into the cricket series will be offered a new feature: ‘Monty’ a machine learning model that predicts when wickets are likely to fall.3 A collaboration between cable provider Foxtel, marketing agency Mindshare and Google, Monty has watched every ball bowled by the Australian men’s team 500,000 times and developed a pattern recognition system that will alert fans to tune in up to 5 minutes in advance of a wicket falling, helping reduce the risk that fans miss a big moment live.
In the US meanwhile, Steve Ballmer, one-time Microsoft CEO and now owner of NBA team the Los Angeles Clippers, wears the hat of a fan, business owner, technology guru and analytics fanatic. His team’s Clippers CourtVision uses computer vision, artificial intelligence and augmented reality to analyse the on-court action and translate it into on-screen annotations and animations, displayed as the game unfolds.4
Viewers can see the probability that a player will make a shot, for example, or watch as the play is diagrammed in real time on the basketball court.
In Great Britain, Wimbledon is engaging tennis fans with digital, multi-channel content, using IBM Watson to assist production teams.5 Instead of people manually selecting match highlights, Watson analyses player emotion, movement, and crowd noise in order to determine the most interesting and must-see moments to include. AI also helps identify the most exciting matches that can then be added to broadcast schedules, that may have otherwise not attracted much attention.
Keeping the value
Fans remain the essential ingredient in the pursuit of sporting glory. Each sporting code has its examples of how rule changes have gotten fans offside, and the integration of technology is no different. Take video decision-making that is widely used in sports such as tennis, football and cricket.
Former professional Australian Football League (AFL) player Andrew Mackie believes machine delivered decision-making has its place in sports which consist of frequent breaks and stoppages. But it detracts from the play of sports like AFL and soccer, he says
“It slows the momentum of the game. That’s not what the fans want to watch,” he says. “[Traditionally] after every match there is debate about an umpire’s decision going one way or the other, but human error is part of our game.”
Like all industries, the key to successful integration is dependent on the human element. While the sports industry is on the cusp of a revolution in how games are played and consumed, it’s the fans that will, as ever, decide its fate.
with thanks to Pippa Binfield
For more information about how AI is transforming sports, download the report Artificial Intelligence: Application to the sports industry.