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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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A Look at the First Fifty Sports Tech Tokyo Participants

Sports Tech Tokyo has announced 50 of the 150 slots for the program meant to be a “gateway” to Asia for the sports tech community.

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Photo via Unsplash

The first third of the Sports Tech Tokyo incubator class has been announced. Venture capital firm Scrum Ventures, via its innovation arm Scrum Studios, and Japanese firm Dentsu released 36 companies (see the full list below), along with a previously announced 14 companies.

With 15 countries represented among program applicants, Scrum Managing Director Michael Proman said the program so far is achieving its goal to help bring an eclectic group of sports technology to Japan.

“It’s about bringing the world together,” Proman said. “It’s really gratifying to see the response. The sports technology community is very vibrant, but also very fragmented, and our goal is to unite that community in the same way Tokyo will be bringing the world together in the coming years.”

Tokyo is just the starting point for the mission, largely because of the upcoming Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympics.

Eventually, Proman said the format could be stretched across Asia, including China (host of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games) and Korea (the host of last year’s Winter Olympics), as it has “broad-based application throughout the region.” The program is also meant to act as a gateway for the sports tech community into Asia.

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

The kickoff event for Sports Tech Tokyo will be in April with 10 to 20 “finalists”  being announced after the initial event in Tokyo. From there, the finalists will work with partner companies and participate in a virtual incubator of sorts, with periodical opportunities to connect in-person with relevant audiences.

“We want to be an arrow in a quiver,” Proman said. “We don’t want to be the quiver. That’s why I think it’s attractive to mid- and late-stage companies. It doesn’t require them to reprioritize business objectives like many accelerator programs.

“It’s not a distraction, but an incremental value add. It’s about supporting their business development efforts in APAC — particularly Japan — because of the partners we’re bringing to the table.”

The selection process of the Sports Tech Tokyo participants is being aided by a mentor community of nearly 60 professionals, with executives coming from teams, leagues, brands, technology companies, and venture capital firms.

“We are able to engage that community in the selection and understand their pain points and what tech excites them,” Proman said. “That’s hugely beneficial.”

Another 100 companies will be announced later this winter, as the application deadline passes at the end of the month. Proman said the application is designed to take less than 20 minutes as its heavily influenced by outbound recruitment.

READ MORE: USOC Continues Turn to Tech to Increase Medal Counts in Tokyo

The initial 50 announced companies are meant to showcase the diversity of the program, not only in regionality and focus, but also stage. Proman said the hopes are to help develop a new idea of technology accelerators. There is no equity investment in the companies.

“These are companies that would not traditionally apply to an accelerator in a classic sense,” he said. “These are companies that see value in the themes of community, relationship building, and revenue generation. We want to make sure the first 50 and next 100 are representative of all stages and multiple countries.”

The Sports Tech Tokyo companies are as follows (listed alphabetically by category):

Athlete Performance

Drivn Coaching Platform (Boston, United States)

KINDUCT Technologies (Halifax, Canada)

Kitman Labs (Palo Alto, United States)

Omegawave OY (Espoo, Finland)

PlayerMaker (London, United Kingdom)

Vision Pursue (Chicago, United States)

Zone7 (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Stadium Experience

IdealSeat (Seattle, United States)

Maestro Interactive (Culver City, United States)

Miro AI (Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

Motionloft (San Francisco, United States)

MVP Interactive (Philadelphia, United States)

Partake (Dallas, United States)

Snapify (London, United Kingdom)

Fan Engagement

Alive5 (Houston, United States)

BCaster USA (Palo Alto, United States)

DataPOWA (London, United Kingdom)

Influencer(INFLCR) (Birmingham, United States)

InSoundz (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Lea (Live Event Assistant) (San Francisco, United States)

Locomizer (London, United Kingdom)

Matcherino (Seattle, United States)

Mimic XR (London, United Kingdom)

Monsterful (New York City, United States)

OpenSponsorship (New York City, United States)

Pixellot (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Play Impossible Corp (Seattle, United States)

Rival.ai Esports Technologies (Toronto, Canada)

Sport50.com (Luxembourg, Luxembourg)

SportsCastr (New York City, United States)

SportsMe (Boston, United States)

The Relish Media Group (San Francisco, United States)

Thuuz Sports (Palo Alto, United States)

WePlayed (Boston, United States)

WHAM Network (Los Angeles, United States)

WSC Sports Technologies (Tel Aviv, Israel)

The first wave of 14 companies are: Halo Neuroscience, Nix Biosensors, Prevent Biometrics, MaxOne, Baseline Vision, D-ID, WaitTime, Spalk, Jebbit, Pico, ActionStreamer, TicketStreet, ookami and Paranoid Fan.

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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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In Changing Media Landscape, Intel Sports is Focused on One Major Goal in 2019

Intel Sports will focus on demonstrating volumetric video in 2019, hoping to alter the future of sports viewing for everyone.

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Photo via Intel

The way sports is consumed hasn’t yet fundamentally changed, but it could in the near future.

Only two years old, Intel Sports is starting to hit its stride. The legacy and importance of its half-century-old parent company provides a lot of opportunities, but being a new vertical helps approach sports with a fresh mind.

“When you look at Intel’s background with data, it’s great,” said James Carwana, vice president and general manager of Intel Sports. “But we can approach things with a blank sheet of paper and not worry about how things have been done.”

Carwana said technology has brought a lot of new ideas to the sports media industry, but there’s still a large gap between consumer demand and the supply in what media is offered. There’s the demand that’s growing and a shift in consumer expectations, which is where the opportunity lies for companies that figure out the gap.

READ MORE: Executives: Competitive Pressure Forcing Industry to Adopt New Technology

“Tech hasn’t fundamentally changed the way we experience the game,” he said. “The supply is the opportunity we’re chasing after. What are fans looking for in an experience, and what would it take to give them an experience that satisfies?”

That supply is where the idea of immersive media comes in as a supplement to general sports media, a subject addressed heavily at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. Companies such as Intel believe fans are looking for an increase in interaction, personalization and data-rich environments in their sports-viewing experiences of the future.

For some, this idea of extra content is about an ego play, Carwana said.

“There is a level of ego in a sports fan,” he said. “You want to prove to your friends and social media that you see things better. That’s how betting works. I know better, I’ll bet against the odds.”

Immersive media is a strange concept, Carwana further expressed with his ego concept. For some, today’s sports media options are more than plenty, even essentially at a linear, one-sided production with highlights. Others want more. If a fan loves the defensive aspect of a game, maybe choosing views that highlight defensive parts of a sport will provide a more immersive viewing experience to that fan than the general public.

At the heart of Intel Sports’ mission to help solve that supply issue is where the company’s 2019 goal lies. By the end of the year, Carwana said his main objective is to demonstrate volumetric video at 30 frames per second.

Volumetric video is an array of 2D cameras compiled into a 3D model.

In sports, those videos can allow broadcasters to look at a play in any view they’d like, as well as additional uses on the team, league and officiating perspective. Intel’s position in sports media is not about owning content or broadcasting rights, but how that content can be delivered.

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

“Tech for tech’s sake is a recipe for an unsuccessful business,” Carwana said. “But from a tech standpoint, that’s fundamentally it. It will be an eye-opening moment many thought wasn’t possible — volumetric content at a stadium scale and produced at that rate.”

Intel has partnerships with LaLiga, MLB, NBA on TNT, NFL, NCAA, as well as esports, and they all bring their own unique goals and aspirations. In addition, Intel and Chinese e-commerce and cloud giant Alibaba formed a partnership for the 2020 Olympics to 3D-map athletes. Carwana said even more partnerships will be announced through the first quarter of 2019.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised if sports technology continues to speed up. 

“One of the big surprises in 2018 was how fast fans moved into different types of different experiences,” he said. “How quickly ESPN+ achieved a million subscribers, four times faster than some industry analysts expected.”

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