Brad Pitt starrer ‘Moneyball’, released in 2011, made the concept of using data science in sports globally understood. For sports nerds though, the book that inspired the movie – ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game’ by Michael Lewis, is the definitive work that made people aware of how data and AI can transform fortunes of a sports team.

While “Moneyball” and the story of the Oakland A’s in baseball’s Major League did indeed represent one of the best known early uses of analytics by a sports team, it is a fact that with advances in machine learning and AI, the impact of data science in sports has increased manifold.

In fact, it will be fair to say that today, athletes and teams in most well-developed sports need to be using the latest technology just to keep pace with the rest of the pack.

Amazing Tech, Numerous Applications

I have been involved with the business of sports in different capacities for the last fifteen years. So, on completing my certification in data science and machine learning, it was natural that I grew more interested than ever in the applications that AI has found in the world of sports.

Today, I am sharing with you some great examples I have found of AI and machine learning transforming the world of sports in recent times.

This is just a small list of ways in which the industry is benefitting from AI. However, there are two things that clearly stand out here.

 


An excellent recent article on startups tackling sports stadium technology, presented this explanatory infographic that helps form an idea about the different kinds of initiatives afoot in this space.

AI is driving new approaches in almost all of these specialization areas and many of these startups have created mind-blowing solutions.

One of the most interesting solutions I find in this space is the one created by Blink Identity, which uses facial recognition technology to identify people moving at full speed. In other words, people do not need to stand in front of a camera or lens and have their faces scanned.

The implications for different stakeholders are very interesting indeed!

For event organizers, the technology can help in managing access of people within the arena - for example, to regulate access to VIP zones.

For security personnel, it can be a tool to quickly get alerted if a known trouble maker or security threat is spotted in the crowd. 

Fans who have linked a payment device to the venue’s platform can buy merchandise or refreshments inside the venue by just picking up what they want at a store, while the amount gets automatically charged to their accounts. Businesses with contracts to sell things at the venue, too profit because of this. 

No surprise then that Blink Identity has attracted a lot of attention within the industry, including investment and partnership with TicketMaster, a major event ticketing solutions provider.

Advertising

Machine learning and AI are enabling rights holders and media companies to offer innovative solutions and value to customers ways that were not conceivable just a few years ago.

The same solutions that allow media companies to create more content at a faster pace, also end up allowing sales people to offer branded content packages customised to the need of specific brands. For example, a highlights segment sponsored by a toothpaste brand could include instances of players grinning at each other (“Colgate Moment???”)! 

Fans watching the same live stream or archived video can be served ads based on their personal preference and behaviour, thanks to advanced machine learning algorithms making ad servers smarter than they have ever been. 

Another interesting AI driven application is helping brands measure the exposure they get in return for their sports sponsorship investment, more effectively than ever before. 

Image recognition technology can capture how often a brand was seen on television screens, how long they were on display for, as well as the quality of exposure. For example a brand may derive a lot more value if it was captured during a piece of action that people are likely to watch over and over again. 

Mumbai based startup AthenasOwl is doing some interesting work in this space. Using image recognition capabilities, they offer a bouquet of solutions to sports broadcasters, including the ability to provide great measurement metrics to advertisers. 

An interactive tool to see how they tracked brand exposure during the FIFA World Cup 2018 can be viewed here. 

Fan engagement and customer service

Happier and more engaged fans lead to higher revenues for companies in the business of sports.

Some of the ways in which fans are kept happy are by great performances by their favorite athlete or team on the field and access to videos and other content from a game in the format and time that is convenient for them. We have seen examples of how AI is helping businesses deliver better performances as well as better content to sports fans.

There are of course many other aspects that go into keeping a fan happy, many of them being applicable to other industries as well. 

For example, a smooth ticket purchase experience, ease of parking and the quality of food served when going to a game, availability and affordability of quality merchandise, access to star athletes, having a voice in how the team or institution is being run, and a lot more contribute to making and keeping passionate fans happy. 

AI is being used by solution providers addressing each of these areas - from managing congestion at the venue on matchday to creating personalised merchandise based not just on current trends but individual emotions and preferences. 

Among the various kind of products that have come up to help sports businesses serve their customers better, chat bots have created quite a stir and are serving the industry in many different ways. 

Chatbots are helping sports event organizers communicate personally with people who are headed to the venue. In events with mass participation like a marathon, they can also play a critical role in managing event logistics. 

Bots are being used to update fans with the latest information and content from the field, to promote tickets and merchandise for sale and also to offer 24/7 customers who face issues in purchasing any of these products. 

The Wimbledon Messenger is a great example of how the biggest sports properties have embraced the opportunity provided by chatbots to serve fans better. The messenger has been created to have conversations with fans at the venue or in any corner of the world.

The Wimbledon Messenger offers expected services like providing updates and feeds on popular players. It also takes care of things that are less predictable. For example, it was observed that fans asked the bot questions like the stall where they could get the cheapest strawberries at Wimbledon! 

Conclusion: AI is about marrying technology with business context

Sports is far from being the only industry that is being transformed by AI but it sure is one of the most interesting areas of application for technology, given the passion and fervor that sports generates. 

With innovation happening at a rapid rate, it is a challenge just to keep track of all the latest cool products that are looking to solve problems in this space. 

However, it is also true that many solutions that are being created using the latest tech are struggling to succeed in the market. 

The fundamentals for success remain the same as ever - smart technology also needs to be useful and that happens when the team building the technology has a solid understanding of business requirements.

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