AI in sports helps teams and leagues engage with fans

The use of artificial intelligence in sports industry is a growing trend that is helping leagues and teams engage with fans and improve the quality of in-game officiating.

Professional sports is a multibillion-dollar industry, and teams and leagues need to do all they can to keep and grow their fan bases. That's why many are now turning to new AI tools to engage fans and offer new experiences.

Professional services company PwC projects that the sports market in North America alone will grow to $73.5 billion in 2019. With spectator sports reliably bringing in such revenue in good economic times and in bad, sports and entertainment companies need to continue to find new ways to provide value to sponsors. That's where AI in sports comes in.

Chatbots help keep fans engaged

Teams across a wide range of sports have started to realize how important it is to engage with and keep their current fan base while also focusing on adding new fans. These organizations are starting to make greater use of chatbots to answer fans' questions about a team's games and to schedule or encourage interactions, such as distributing tournament data. Using these conversational interfaces, teams can now better engage with fans one on one and create unique personalized experiences.

Professional hockey team the St. Louis Blues tested an AI-powered Facebook Messenger bot last season to help connect and engage with their current fan base in an effort to turn casual fans into fanatics. As part of a 16-game pilot program, the Blues were able to offer more personal communication with fans via the Messenger bot, increase fan loyalty, encourage fans to participate in interactive fan polls with the results displayed in-venue during games, and quickly address questions or concerns fans might have during and after each event.

Tennis fans at Wimbledon have also found their experience enhanced with the help of a chatbot named Fred. Created by IBM and named after British tennis player Fred Perry, Fred helps spectators navigate the venue, suggests dining options, provides an easy way to change or upgrade seats, supplies player stats, and distributes tournament data and insights in real-time.

AI helps make better calls

AI-based systems are also starting to find their way into the contentious world of refereeing. AI-based referee assistants are helping refs review penalties and other important in-game moments. AI systems can automatically review game footage and help determine the timing of plays and the location of players during plays.

In much the same way that live video and on-screen systems have helped make game decision-making more fair and transparent, these machine learning-enhanced systems provide an unbiased approach to determining game outcomes. However, some fans might prefer the experience of yelling at a human referee whose decisions they might not agree with. Yelling at the bot is not as much fun.

AI isn't just about fan experience. Machine
learning can also predict the outcome of games.

Similarly, AI technology is starting to assist coaches as an augmentative assistant. These systems can review thousands of historical plays in mere seconds and suggest plays to coaches in real time. AI can also calculate situational options and make predictions based on prior plays.

These systems can even help provide guidance with unexpected variables that come up on game day, such as injuries, weather and field conditions, players having off days, and other factors. Of course, nothing can replace the guidance and experience of a coach, but soon we'll see AI-enhanced devices used by coaches to provide even more of a competitive advantage on and off the field.

AI automatically generates game coverage

The use of AI in sports is also extending to reporting on sports and entertainment events. Natural language generation (NLG) systems can create post-game coverage and assemble highlights and promote regional sports events where human sports broadcasters can't be physically present. These systems generate content using numerical data and translate it into a human-readable summary format in much the same way that sportscasters recount the experiences of a game. In addition, chatbots are being used to broadcast sports news for small and regional games down to the high school level.

Microsoft recently created the Bing Sportscaster bot, which broadcasts sports news to fans, in addition to providing information such as game rosters, results and other game-related information. Users can interact with the Sportscaster bot using Facebook Messenger and other platforms to initiate conversations about their favorite teams.

AI systems are also being used to deliver clips and highlights of games to various channels faster than was previously possible. The PGA Tour is using AI to generate and post video highlights, including a five-minute video overview of an individual player's round. Previously, this video would have taken hours to produce and post to digital platforms.

The Tour also uses an NLG platform called Quill to generate customized recaps for each player after every round of the tournament. This enables coverage of some of the lesser-known players on the Tour, which can introduce fans to players they might not otherwise follow.

It's clear that we can expect the use of AI in sports to grow. Experiences both in and out of the stadium will be more personalized, interactive and information-rich as AI continues to become part of how these sports and entertainment companies engage with their community.

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