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Why MiLB is Turning to AI to Open New Doors

The league has teamed up with Satisfi Labs to deliver a solution they believe will change the way they do business as a whole.

Adam White

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A look at what the AI technology can do. (Image via Satisfi Labs)

What if there was a solution to give you the power of communicating with your fans in their language? What if that solution could learn from all the other teams that were using it and get smarter along the way? Well, thanks to the power of AI and machine learning, there just so happens to be just the solution for a problem like that.

By making a commitment to investing in said technology through their new partnership with Satisfi Labs, Minor League Baseball is taking a step that is heralded by Kurt Hunzeker, the league’s VP of Marketing Strategy & Research, as one that, “will fundamentally change how the league and its teams do business.”

According to The Motley Fool, the AI industry is expected to grow to over $5 billion by the year 2020 and with teams like the Atlanta Falcons already deploying AI inside their team app, the potential impact for the technology in sports is only just beginning to scratch the surface.

It’s this impact that Hunzeker was intrigued by and what ultimately drew him to see what potential AI could have within the realm of Minor League Baseball, where the games are all about the experience.

“One of the biggest obstacles facing our teams is the lack of bilingual staff who can effectively be available should the need arise,” said Hunzeker. “Not just during the game, but before the game when fans are purchasing tickets or need answers to basic questions leading up to the event. With Satisfi Labs, we were very, very, intrigued by the concept of having a virtual AI conversation tool that would effectively alleviate this issue for our clubs.”

While the impact on gameday might be evident to the fans, it’s what goes on after the fact that Don White, CEO and Co-Founder of Satisfi Labs, believes is the most valuable part of the equation.

“For us to be able to facilitate a way that the fan can search for anything they’re trying to find or buy at the game and then serve that back up to the league and say, ‘Hey, here’s how you can meet fans needs in a more efficient way.’ That’s really where AI becomes such a powerful tool and why we’re really excited about this one.”  

Although MiLB won’t be rolling out the conversation tool in a team app like the Falcons did with ‘Ask Arthur’, Hunzeker is happy to start the integration of the technology through Facebook, a platform that the league sees fans engaging with teams the most.

“If it wasn’t the only option, it would still be the best option. Based on research from our teams, Facebook constantly outperforms other platforms when it comes to community size and engagement.”

But, Facebook is just the beginning as Hunzeker and the league have plans to roll the technology out in stages to what he called, “every place where the consumers are and where they are asking questions and showing intent.”

Starting with 33 teams this year and eventually expanding out to the remaining 127 MiLB teams within the next year, the system built by Satisfi Labs will only continue to grow in intelligence and capabilities thanks to the interconnectedness of the solution.

“What Minor League baseball has essentially created is a mini location-based Google for their teams and fans,” said White. “So if there is a question at one club on the west coast in New Mexico and the other teams haven’t seen that question before, the system will teach all other teams and say, ‘Hey, if someone ever asked this, I want you to know what to say.’”

So, not only can the system learn by interacting with the fans, it can learn by interacting with the respective teams and locations a tool is in. This allows MiLB to then use that data to get a holistic view of their fanbase, something they have never had before.

“What’s going to happen is we’ll be surfacing what gets distilled down to a demand curve and so we’ll sit with Kurt and the team and say, ‘Hey, although we originally built this product to focus on the bilingual customer service aspect, a lot of fans are looking to purchase jerseys and hats, and they’re looking for recommendations for gifts,” noted White. “So what’s really interesting is when you think about all the things that you type into a search engine, it gives Google a lot of information about how you operate as a person. Well, now we’re transitioning that power and giving it to the fan, but allowing the league to take action on what fans are trying to accomplish in short order.”

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For MiLB, an organization that wants to reach 50 million fans by 2026 – effectively two percent growth annually until 2026 – it’s this type of knowledge that could go a long way in helping them not only reach it, but smash right through it.

“If you break it all down to the least common denominator, there are really two ways we can go about this,” said Hunzeker. “One is if you do the math, a twopercent difference is where our Hispanic and Latino fan engagement initiative comes into play and were this tears down a barrier that prohibited our clubs from engaging that audience. Two, If we can convince roughly five and a half to six percent of our unique attendee base to go to one more game or bring a friend to one game that’s two percent growth right there.”

Whether it’s using the tool to better engage the Hispanic and Latino fan bases of many clubs, or using it to serve relevant marketing materials to fans in order to get them to come back to games, it gives the league an opportunity to truly know more about its fans than it ever has before.

“What’s really interesting is a lot of planning right now about fan interests and experiences are based on surveys that touch 2% of fans,” said White when talking about gauging potential fan interests. On average, we engage 20 to 30 percent, sometimes up to 70 percent, of fans on mobile apps at a game. Imagine having a one on one conversation with half your fanbase digitally where all the information was organized into actionable steps. We’re taking a lot of guts and theory out of how to really make a fan experience better and using hard data to tell teams how to do it.”

Not only does MiLB now have the power to deliver for fans who don’t speak English, they can use the newfound data to create an even better fan experience, and one that they hope helps them rocket past 50 million visitors sooner rather than later.

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

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How The UNC Tar Heels Organized Roy Williams’ Court Dedication

To celebrate the dedication of Roy Williams Court, UNC staff were tasked with putting together a special reunion dubbed Carolina Family Weekend.

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via UNC Basketball

(*Teamworks is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)

The history of the NCAA Tournament can’t be told properly without the inclusion of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels and head men’s basketball coach Roy Williams. Now in his 16th season as Tar Heels head coach, Williams has guided UNC to five Final Fours and three national championships alongside a host of individual coaching awards.

To honor Coach Williams and his impact on UNC basketball, the university dedicated the court inside the Dean E. Smith Center to him with a ceremony in August of 2018. To celebrate the occasion, men’s basketball staffers were tasked with putting together a special reunion dubbed Carolina Family Weekend that included hundreds of UNC’s greatest players from Williams’ time as a student, assistant coach, and head coach in Chapel Hill as well as the current team and members of Williams’ family. This mainly fell on the shoulders of administrative assistant Cynthia Friend and business operations/special events manager Kaye Chase.

READ MORE: Mississippi State Volleyball Camps Run Efficiently While Building for the Program’s Future

To help notify all the invitees about the event and maintain their contact information, Friend and Chase needed an effective communication tool in Teamworks. UNC’s athletic department had already been utilizing the software for two years for a number of internal logistics like messaging, compliance related tasks, distributing travel itineraries, and document sharing, but found another use for it in Teamworks’ mass communication abilities.

“There were multiple parts to the reunion including the unveiling of the court, dinner, a golf outing, and pick-up games on Saturday. We needed to get all that information to the lettermen as well as get their RSVPs in the most time-efficient way that we could,” says Friend.

The two then were able to set up different profiles for each prospective guest within the program that included their respective contact info and their eventual response. To maximize likelihood of a response, Friend and Chase used Teamworks to send both emails and texts to all prospective attendees.

“Going into this, we really were not sure how we were going to handle RSVPs,” recalls Chase. “So we made a form, which auto-populated into an Excel spreadsheet. That saved us quite a bit of time.”

Friend and Chase then were able to efficiently let the hundreds of attendees know where they were expected to be for each event as well as other key logistical details. If and when small changes to the schedule occurred, all attendees could be notified easily through Teamworks. The end result was a very smooth weekend that had many of the former players raving on social media both during and after the weekend.

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READ MORE: Miami Hurricanes Leverage Technology To Prepare For Actual Hurricanes

Moving forward, the Tar Heels plan to hold more reunion events, particularly for their teams that won national championships or reached the Final Four. 2019 marked Roy Williams’ 29th season in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. It is only a matter of time before one of his legendary teams is honored with a special return trip home to Chapel Hill. When that time comes, UNC administrators will have the procedures in place to make it happen after acquiring the contact information for nearly every letterman in program history through setting up Carolina Family Weekend. 

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“It’s great to have these processes and this information already in place for smaller events and reunions,” Chase says. “Having all of our lettermen organized into this database has been really great for us. We’re looking forward to finding more ways to use it and more reasons to bring our alumni back to campus.”

To learn more about how Teamworks helps empower the sports world’s best, visit Teamworks.com today.

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Innovation

USOC Continues Turn to Tech to Increase Medal Counts in Tokyo

The U.S. Olympic Committee is careful in the technologies its sports use, but overall technology is now an important tool in helping train athletes.

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Photo via USOC

Phil Cheetham is careful to avoid analysis paralysis.

The term was used to describe providing athletes with too much information from the variety of ways data can be collected today. Cheetham, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of sport technology and innovation, said the TMI condition is possible, but easily maneuvered around by allowing coaches to be the gatekeeper.

“We’ll feed coaches as much as we can,” Cheetham said. “They’re the filter, they have to take the data and filter it into coach speak and into the drills and exercises.”

Cheetham’s role is largely to interact and advise with the various National Governing Bodies that make up the U.S. Olympic teams as they enter into the final training stretch of Tokyo 2020.

READ MORE: Inside Sports Tech Tokyo’s Aspirations to Be Gateway to Asia for Sports Tech Businesses

His main goal is to help the various teams, coaches and technical directors select technology that is simple to use and helps understand and improve athletes more rapidly and to avoid injuries.

“If tech can help an athlete be quicker and better, then we’re for it,” Cheetham said.

That said, Cheetham said the technology used within the U.S. teams across the sports spectrum have to not be too intrusive. The equipment — like wearables – must be simple and easily integrated into a piece of clothing or shoes, without impeding the athletic performance. They also need to be accurate, and accuracy is improving regularly, but still can be a problem.

Cheetham, a former Olympic gymnast for Australia, also has a passion for diving and has several pet projects working with those two sports at the USOC.

The technology within the U.S. Olympic community is greatly helped by a fund created by philanthropists from Silicon Valley. Cheetham said the fund is made up of entrepreneurs and billionaires from V.C. firms and tech companies, to provide an advisory board.

“It’s not just money, but expertise and networking,” Cheetham said. “These guys are the top of Silicon Valley, so they know everybody. If we want to know what’s best in motion capture, artificial intelligence or virtual reality, we can go to them first.”

The Olympic organizations often have a chance to be among the first users for a lot of technologies in sports — and while it can be great to be on the cutting edge of the innovation, Cheetham said it’s important not to let the athletes be guinea pigs.

“A lot of times, we get prototypes, and that’s good and bad,” he said. “A lot of times, a weekend warrior or high school and college athletes can do the basic testing and when the tech is close to ready, that’s when it comes to the Olympics.”

That’s because if the data doesn’t work, it can’t help the teams improve. Technology, like one of his pet projects in motion capture, has increasingly gotten better and faster, collecting so much more data and more efficiently without disrupting athletes. Now the statistical models created can be much more useful in following trends and designing training around how long to train and when to take breaks.

READ MORE: Why Alibaba’s Push Into Sports Is a Natural Fit for the Chinese E-Commerce Company

“We’re really interested in tech that helps us track training length and intensity, and if we can do that, we can periodize training sessions better and taper perfectly for a competition,” Cheetham said. “When you’re training at an elite level, you’re walking a tight-rope of performance and injury. You can’t win a competition if you’re not in it, and the tech is helping us avoid injuries.”

The data collected can also provide coaches with more accurate information for better coaching, like if a shot put throw is off six degrees. It’s no longer “I think you were.” Now, it’s “I know you were.”

When it comes down to the technology used, Cheetham said the USOC takes yearly solicitations and ranks projects and budgets based on which ones will have the best chance to improve medal count. Often, the projects are easily transferable from one sport to another.

One example he provided was a radar technology used to track shot put, javelin, discus and hammer throws. The USOC technology was originally developed to track golf balls.

“We’ll do some blue sky projects, but most are good sells and no-brainers.”

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Innovation

Why Alibaba’s Push Into Sports Is a Natural Fit for the Chinese E-Commerce Company

A long-term Olympic partnership showcases the cloud computing power of Alibaba and makes it a global player in the sports tech industry.

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Alibaba, China’s massive e-commerce company, is making its presence felt in sports.

The Chinese company first entered the sports realm in 2017, signing a long-term partnership with the IOC to become the official “Cloud Infrastructure and Services” and “E-Commerce Platform” partner of the Olympics.

Heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, Alibaba has partnered with Intel with intentions to develop the first AI-powered 3D tracking technology. The partnership will utilize Alibaba’s cloud computing with Intel’s hardware and deep-learning algorithms.

The partnership with Intel will hopefully bring Alibaba more name recognition and insight into the company’s operations, said Joey Tan, Alibaba Cloud head of global initiatives and general manager of sports business unit.

“It’s just getting the brand out there,” Tan said at CES this week in Las Vegas.

Alibaba Cloud is the world’s third largest cloud provider, behind Microsoft and AWS, and its foray into sports has all been cloud-driven. Tan said Alibaba’s exploration into sports is about four key points: digitizing fan engagement, innovative broadcasts, cost-effective operations, and high-performance athletic training.

READ MORE: Inside Sports Tech Tokyo’s Aspirations to Be Gateway to Asia for Sports Tech Businesses

At the first Olympics as a sponsor, the company put on the Alibaba Olympic Games Showcase at PyeongChang in 2018. The immersive and interactive exhibit gave more than 100,000 attendees a glimpse at how technology can change future games.

In September 2018, Alibaba partnered with the Olympic Broadcasting System to launch the OBS Cloud to digitize broadcasting of the 2020 Olympics. The OBS Cloud helps streamline broadcasting workflow.

The OBS Cloud also goes along with the announcement of the Intel partnership, which will create deeper conversation around performance tracking by giving fans insights into the world-class athletic performances.

“It’s creating better athletic content to tell better stories,” Tan said. “It’s for broadcasters to tell wonderful stories, but at the same time, use it for teams and federations to do more fine-tuning with the athletes.”

Alibaba holds lots of American sport broadcasting rights in China. The company won Pac-12 rights and the ability to broadcast 175 events annually. The company’s streaming arm, Youku, won rights to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Youku also has a partnership with the NFL.

Sports were a natural fit for the evolution of the Alibaba company, Tan said, as founder Jack Ma believes strongly in “health and happiness.”

Alibaba has so much technology in the retail realm, and Tan said they’re pulling that technology and applying it to sports — helping showcase the company to a wider audience.

READ MORE: Toyota Grows Olympic Involvement With Six New Partnerships

“We are using the Olympics as a primary showcase of our abilities,” he said. “Sports brings health and happiness, so in 2017 we said ‘let’s make the health and happiness vision true.’”

In December, Alibaba launched the Olympic Store on Tmall, the Chinese retail website operated by Alibaba. Chinese fans can purchase Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 products all year. There are additional plans to launch a global e-commerce platform.

There are no major immediate plans to enter the U.S. market with its sports products, but Tan said the U.S. is certainly on the radar screen.

“The U.S. is one of the biggest markets in the world when it comes to sports consumers,” he said. “Our first strategy is with Intel and working closely with the USOC.”

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