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Volume 23 No. 24
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A new reality powered by AI

The challenges ahead for the sports industry will expedite the growth and impact of artificial intelligence, the result of technology meeting demand.
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

On the morning of Jan. 8, Mark Cuban likened the global pursuit of unlocking artificial intelligence’s full potential to the 20th century space race, enlightening a packed ballroom of entrepreneurs and media and industry leaders at CES 2020 in Las Vegas with an AI endorsement as clear as it was declarative.

The Dallas Mavericks owner said that businesses that don’t embrace AI will soon become dinosaurs. AI will separate the haves from have-nots who “might as well rip out all the computers in your office and throw away your phones,” he said. And, Cuban added, if you don’t use AI now, “you’re the equivalent of somebody in 1999 saying, ‘Yeah, I’m sure this internet thing will be OK, but I don’t give a shit.’”

Three months later, Cuban’s words resonate with even more urgency. The world has been turned upside down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, thrust into a historic health and economic crisis that promises to dramatically alter all aspects of life for the foreseeable future. While the priority is saving lives and curtailing the virus’s spread, sport is a multibillion-dollar, multifaceted industry that will rely heavily on AI-powered solutions as it confronts a plethora of broad challenges in the uncertain months ahead.

“Before coronavirus, artificial intelligence and technologies such as computer vision and machine learning have been changing sports,” said John Kosner, the former longtime ESPN Digital executive who invests in and advises a portfolio of tech startups. “After coronavirus, they will transform them. It is all going to be so integrated into the sports experience, an indispensable part of the mix.”

Kosner is among those who believe that the sports world will be pressed to create “premium versions of themselves,” including high-end content like advanced statistics, customized highlights and immersive experiences (VR/AR), to begin to try to make up for lost gate revenue. These technologies will be used to create innovations to attract and engage fans.  

Industry leaders will seek to create more self-serve experiences for those either unable to return to sporting venues and health clubs because of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, or unwilling to because of the psychological impact of what they are enduring. Then there are unknown elements, such as how much discretionary income fans may have once live sporting events return, that will need to be factored into decisions by leagues, teams and sports businesses. 

The sports world’s future is foggy. But AI’s potential in sports is “pretty close to endless,” said Andrew Robinson, the CTO for Dallas-based Event Dynamic, which uses AI to optimize ticket prices for teams. “The real power that AI is able to bring to bear is the ability to analyze data so much faster than what a human could do and in a retrainable way that can constantly learn, evolve and get better.”

Technologies such as machine learning, computer vision and deep learning, among others, all fall under the umbrella of AI, which remains in the early stages of benefiting the sports ecosystem even as more organizations have hired data scientists, developers and others in business intelligence roles. The sports business’s recovery from the global pandemic will accelerate AI’s impact — and perhaps vice versa as well — the result of an emerging technology meeting opportunity and demand. And according to those who invest in, develop and lead AI-powered businesses, the outcome is expected to be revolutionary. 

“It’s going to have significant impact,” said Keith Bank, a Chicago-area veteran of the venture capital industry and CEO and founder of the firm KB Partners. “A lot of AI things that have originally been used maybe by the elite athletes and organizations, teams and leagues are going to filter down to the everyday person. There’s going to be a whole new wave of companies that take what has happened over the last month and figure out ways to hopefully capitalize. Where people work is going to change. Where people view sports is going to change. The way people view sports is going to change. There’s going to be a sea change. There’s going to be some long-lasting and permanent innovations that come from this.”

HOW CONTENT IS MADE

If live sporting events return before fans are allowed in venues, an emphasis will be placed on enhancing the broadcast. Kosner envisions the potential of live video shots of fans and influencers watching the game at home being interspersed into the live game broadcast to liven up what otherwise would be a game devoid of crowd noise.

Consider the possibilities unlocked by a company like Kiswe, which essentially is a television truck and control room in the cloud. It has enabled the NBA to personalize international broadcasts with live games in local languages. It also has worked with NBA TV (a joint venture between Turner and the NBA) to produce “FrontCourt,” offering a marquee game of the night with alternative talent that includes athletes, coaches and celebrities. With the need now for remote productions, they are helping NBA TV to produce “GameTime,” “Hardwood Classics” and more for digital and linear television.

“While the traditional model is that the truck makes the broadcast for the audience,” Kosner said, “we are moving to a model where the audience makes content for the game.”

Jeff Volk, Deltatre’s head of business and revenue, Americas, said AI will help “put the power in the viewer’s hands.”

“We know sports fans want to be able to shape a viewing experience that meets their tastes and needs,” Volk said. “What is exciting about the world of sports is that fans consume our programming predominantly live, and they always want more: more data, more interactivity, more customization. The data have shown that fans are hungry for this type of innovation, and we know they’ll pay more for personalization options.  In fact, 72% of sports fans view personalization as ‘important’ and 71% of sports fans crave ‘deeper immersion’ when watching live games.”

StreamLayer allows video stream viewers to interact with the content, from social media to merchandise to in-game wagering.
Photo: streamlayer
StreamLayer allows video stream viewers to interact with the content, from social media to merchandise to in-game wagering.
Photo: streamlayer
StreamLayer allows video stream viewers to interact with the content, from social media to merchandise to in-game wagering.
Photo: streamlayer

Along those lines, the Chicago-based company StreamLayer, founded in mid-2018, has developed video overlay technology that sits on top of any video stream. By clicking on the icon in the lower right-hand corner — whatever network logo that icon may be — the user calls up a menu displaying ways to interact with that video while still watching that event. It’s a transparent layer that allows a viewer to see social media feeds and chat with friends, buy merchandise or tickets, or even gamble on live action.

“It’s a way to make available to viewers all the interactive components an especially younger generation wants,” said Bank, whose KB Partners is the lead and largest investor in StreamLayer. “They can’t sit through a three-hour baseball game. They want to be doing other things. We believe it’s the wave of the future. It provides a much more engaging consumer experience. It provides all kinds of new revenue channels for rights holders. There’s also a gamification piece to it.”

The ability to personalize content is also one element of MLB’s announcement last month that Google Cloud is now its official cloud and cloud data and analytics partner. That will lead to reinventing Statcast, the automated tool for analyzing player movements and abilities. Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president for strategy, technology and innovation, has been bullish on the potential of computer vision to revolutionize the viewing experience for fans. In a lengthy interview before the pandemic shut down sports, he painted a picture of cameras set up throughout the ballpark tracking everything, not just where the ball went.

“But also how fast did someone go, and not just how fast did they move their body but how fast did they move their foot, their arm, their arm angle, their bat, their glove,” Marinak said. “You’re going to have an infinite level of data and information around what’s happening on the field. That’s going to revolutionize how fans consume sports. It’s going to be who turned the quickest double play and why, who has the best footwork at second base. Those types of things will be data points that you’ll be able to get immediate access to.”

ANSWERS ARE IN THE DATA

Businesses use AI to train a machine to do a task that was previously done by humans. For the Tel Aviv-based WSC Sports, that includes revolutionizing the creation and distribution of video highlights. It eschews the manual process by using AI to personalize content for fans and customize it to geographic regions. Achieving this in real time, the technology uses audio and visual cues to pinpoint key moments in a game to curate highlights. 

The NBA has been using this technology since 2014. Bob Carney, the league’s senior vice president of social and digital strategy, calls it a “game-changer” for the NBA, adding that it takes only a few minutes now to create more than 1,000 highlight packages.

What’s next for WSC Sports is more personalized highlight packages. Leagues may begin to roll out highlight packages as licensed products tailored to fans’ individual preferences. Does a fan prefer a 70-second highlight clip or a two-minute clip? Does she want to see all the behind-the-back passes that led to baskets on a particular night of games? That could be possible as well.

Kosner has been advising WSC Sports to understand the value of its metadata, not merely what it produces. “Don’t just think about all these projects and things you’re enabling, but what is it that you know?” he said. “What’s the perfect duration for a condensed game? Does it vary by sport, by country? Insights like these are made possible by these technologies and are priceless. Companies collecting the data are the ones who are going to understand it.”

One company that understands the increasing value of its data is Boston-based Whoop, a favorite of PGA Tour players — including Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas — that tracks key measurements including heart rate variability, resting heart rate and sleep staging to help members of its service optimize their performance and overall well-being. Whoop’s memberships range from $30 a month for a six-month commitment to $18 for 18 months, and hardware is included in the price. 

Most importantly in these unprecedented times, Whoop announced on April 1 that data collected via its wrist-worn Strap 3.0 from hundreds of self-identified COVID-19 patients who are Whoop members would be part of a study by CQUniversity in Australia, in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic.

Data collected by Whoop’s wearable technology (below), used by golfer Rory McIlroy, will be used in a study of COVID-19 in Australia and the U.S. The company has found that measuing respiratory rate can be an early signal of the disease’s symptoms.
Photo: whoop
Data collected by Whoop’s wearable technology (below), used by golfer Rory McIlroy, will be used in a study of COVID-19 in Australia and the U.S. The company has found that measuing respiratory rate can be an early signal of the disease’s symptoms.
Photo: whoop
Data collected by Whoop’s wearable technology (below), used by golfer Rory McIlroy, will be used in a study of COVID-19 in Australia and the U.S. The company has found that measuing respiratory rate can be an early signal of the disease’s symptoms.
Photo: whoop

Since early March, members have been able to toggle on COVID-19 as an option to indicate they have the virus. When members make note of that, they are given the option to fill out a survey about their symptoms. Each day they have COVID-19 toggled on (indicating they still feel symptoms), they receive a shorter check-in survey in the app to provide any updates on their condition. 

After seeing hundreds of people respond in the first 24 hours — and many more since — the company asked permission to use the data for research purposes. In the individuals’ data examined, the company has seen that an elevated respiratory rate — effectively the number of breaths per minute — could be a specific precursor to COVID-19 symptoms. 

Photo: whoop
Photo: whoop
Photo: whoop

Earlier this year, Whoop, founded in 2012, became the first wrist-worn wearable device to validate the accuracy of its respiratory rate during sleep in a third-party study conducted by the University of Arizona and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.  

“Our goal at Whoop is to provide as much thought leadership and research as we can around COVID-19,” said Will Ahmed, the company’s founder and CEO. “It’s all hands on deck across humanity to fight this virus and beat it. Anything that can be a potential indicator should be on the table. We believe respiratory rate may be an early indicator, and that may be something organizations can use to help predict this thing in light of the fact that we [the United States] are short on tests and we are trying to figure this thing out as fast as possible.

PERFORMANCE ASSISTANCE

If there is a premium on more and better personal data related to health and performance, the best wearables and performance-related technologies will be in high demand.

Consider ShotTracker, which uses sensors on basketballs to provide valuable shooting data in real time. The data informs assistant coaches via iPads during games and, in turn, can enhance television broadcasts with data related to shooting tendencies and the motion of players. As sports betting moves toward legalization in more states, the data could also be used in venues among fans to inform microbets during games because there is sub-second latency. 

During the 2019-20 season, ShotTracker enjoyed a partnership with the Mountain West Conference, enabling it to be used in all men’s and women’s basketball conference games, where statistics were used both during games by coaches as a teaching tool and during broadcasts to inform viewers. 

Dan Butterly, the MWC’s senior associate commissioner, called the technology an “unbelievably great product if you want to improve in basketball, not just shooting. With the number of statistics available, our coaches have said that players look at it even more than they do because [the players] want to improve.”

ShotTracker also had partnerships with several other marquee men’s basketball teams this past season, including No. 1-ranked Kansas, No. 5 Baylor, Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin and BYU, which led the nation in three-point shooting. Those programs used the system in practice, but not games because not every team in the respective leagues had a partnership. 

The emerging smart apparel industry could be the post-pandemic answer for those reluctant to return to health clubs, personal trainers and even physical therapists. Asensei, founded in 2014, won an award for most innovative fitness company at the Fitness & Active Brands Summit in Los Angeles last December because of its unique technology. Its smart apparel is infused with a network of sensors for full-body motion capture combined with a connected coaching app that turns biomechanic data into real-time coaching insights. The technologies give Asensei sport-specific understanding of posture and movement by embedding motion capture capabilities directly into sports apparel, allowing Asensei to guide, monitor and correct biomechanics. 

Asensei CEO Steven Webster said that even prior to the multitude of stay-at-home orders nationwide, millions of people were already watching fitness content on screens and devices. But his technology helps ensure people work out correctly and safely.

“Without what Asensei calls Connected Coaching, connected fitness is still just a spectator sport,” Webster said. “It’s basically the same thing that Jane Fonda introduced to the world in 1982. Consumers want to be guided through workout programs, while also being corrected on their technique and form. And overnight, not only has the need become more acute, it has become a need shared by the entire at-home sport and fitness market, not just a percentage share of it.”

HOW WILL FANS RETURN?

In such uncertain times, it will be critical for teams and leagues to have strong and efficient lines of communication with their fans, which is where chatbots and virtual assistants come in. Satisfi Labs, the AI-powered knowledge management platform, has more than 200 clients in sports, entertainment and tourism, including more than 100 in professional and college sports. In mid-March, it trained its chatbots to understand and provide answers to countless questions by fans regarding COVID-19 and topics related to it, such as ticket refunds.

ShotTracker uses sensors on basketballs to relay information to coaches and broadcast partners about players’ shooting tendencies and motion.
Photo: shottracker
ShotTracker uses sensors on basketballs to relay information to coaches and broadcast partners about players’ shooting tendencies and motion.
Photo: shottracker
ShotTracker uses sensors on basketballs to relay information to coaches and broadcast partners about players’ shooting tendencies and motion.
Photo: shottracker

That technology will be increasingly critical for teams as fans seek information related to when fans will be permitted back into venues, what medical protocols may be in place and any changes that will be enacted regarding social distancing, concessions or ticketing policies. Don White, the CEO of Satisfi Labs, said an increasing number of people realize that the feedback teams traditionally have received from surveys represents only a fraction of what they could get if they could aggregate “what is already flying through their walls every game.”

“I think that is the future,” White said in an interview just before the pandemic grew. “If I were going back to school I’d be focusing heavily on data science, and I believe the sports industry is the perfect place. Data is your life. Data will never go away. There’s never going to be less of it. That’s an industry you can bet on.”

One company especially eager for games to return and to return with fans in venues is Event Dynamic. The company, which launched last year, is the first in the ticketing industry to successfully use its patent-pending AI technology to optimize ticket prices for live events across professional and college sports in pursuit of maximizing revenue and increasing attendance. The company incorporates almost countless factors — winning/losing streaks, weather, the opponent, bobblehead nights, etc. — to ensure that tickets are priced so that they have the best chance of selling. 

When games return, the challenge will be also factoring in the potential short-term hesitance of families to return to mass gatherings and the possibility of diminished discretionary income, which could vary by market. Robinson, the company’s CTO, said their algorithm will react on its own to the change in demand. And right now, no one can quantify that level of demand.

“We know there is a lot of uncertainty but we also know that if you go three or four months down our road map, our technology is that much more powerful, and we’re still building,” said Robinson, later adding, “We already believe that our algorithms will adapt and adjust faster than everyone else’s anyway. Our product was built to react to changes in demand. ... I think the difference between the winners and losers coming out of this is, one, you’ve got to survive [as a business]. Two, after you get to the other side, what do you look like?”