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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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Whistle Signals an Official Call to Action Within the Sports Landscape

The platform allows for a streamlined process for connecting referees to upcoming sports events while also providing a network to foster growth and support for aspiring officials.

Max Simpson

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Photo credit: Whistle

Sports are everywhere in today’s culture. The countless memories that they provide are far-reaching and impact much of how we choose to focus our attention. They serve not only as a driving force of dynamic entertainment, but they also offer a way to shape values and mold future generations. Sports have to start somewhere. Like most lifelong endeavors, the best place to begin is at the youth level.

As a kid, you may think there isn’t much to starting a sports league or organizing an official game. You need the proper field, the equipment, and teammates to play with and a team to play against. Yet, what is stopping these complex operations from turning to absolute mayhem? A referee.

In the United States, there are over 100 million amateur sporting events every year that rely on referees to do their job of maintaining order. Be that as it may, the lack of convenience and active available officials are threatening the sports landscape across the world. Referees are oft-forgotten within the structure of sports, particularly at the youth level. That is, until they are thrust into the spotlight on the receiving end of verbal — and worst case, physical — abuse from a host of players and even parents.

Until recently, referees have had to weather these harsh conditions, in addition to inadequate pay and difficulty finding consistent work in less-organized associations. They’re still waiting weeks, sometimes months, to get paid, haven’t had a reliable platform to increase advancement opportunities and offer feedback from their experience directly to the organization.

Enter Whistle.

Founded in 2017 by Oliver Barton, Whistle serves aspiring referees and established sports organizations twofold: Referees are able to select preferences such as sport to officiate, distance to event, and days available in order to maximize their official ratings and build their pedigree. In turn, organizers are able to easily create upcoming events, manage officials’ schedules, rate referee performances, and ultimately expand their officiating network for future events.

READ MORE: Why the Sports Industry Could Include the First 5G Beneficiaries 

“Similar to everyday apps like Lyft and Uber, Whistle allows for both parties [referees and organizations] to rate each other in order to produce a better environment for everybody involved,” said Barton. “This is especially helpful for both experienced and inexperienced referees as they will have the ability to raise issues, as well as see if there is a prior history of abuse at certain leagues or tournaments.

Barton’s inspiration for Whistle was originally forged in the United Kingdom. He grew up playing soccer throughout his childhood and into adolescence. The sport was a vital part of the culture then and still is today as over 50,000 referees are needed to officiate Sunday league games throughout the country on a weekly basis. One incident that helped to forge Barton’s appreciation for officials came as his identity within the sports landscape was taking place.

“My first encounter with what referees have to go through occurred when I was 12 years old,” recalled Barton. “My brother, who was 14 at the time, attended one of my games that ended controversially. After the match concluded, he yelled abuse at the referee and was promptly banned from playing for a portion of games. Upon returning, he never talked back to referees again.”

Upon immigrating to the United States in 2016 after meeting his wife, Barton’s perspective of sports was further widened. He noted a system where the sports-participation rate was far more expansive than the United Kingdom, and even Europe, yet the alarming shortage of officials dominated headlines. That’s when he gave birth to Whistle and set out on his vision to make sports officiating universally accessible to everybody.

In October 2017, Los Angeles-based Hickory VC helped to jumpstart the company with pre-seed funding. Early investors Chris Webb and Jake Ireland, both of whom played college basketball, saw Whistle as a solution that the sports world desperately needs.

“What stood out to us about Whistle was the untapped and overlooked global officiating market they were going after,” said Ireland, Hickory VC Managing Partner. “The lack of accessible, quality sports officials has impacted each and every one of us in some way (whether as a fan, participant, coach or parent), and this worsening problem has major ramifications for sports participation at all ages. Whistle is the solution the sports world desperately needs. If we stick to the game plan and continue to execute, we’ll be the industry leader in the not so distant future.”

With the momentum building, Whistle’s soft launch took place in May 2018. Soon after, the partnerships began rolling in. Hoopla, the second largest 3×3 basketball tournament of its kind which hosts 1,000 teams, 4,000 participants, and 900 volunteers, brought on Whistle as Game Official Management Partner. In July of that year, Dean Blandino, FOX Sports’ NFL and college football rules analyst and former NFL SVP of officiating, joined Whistle’s board of directors.

“The passion for officiating and connecting with people in order to improve the officiating space was mutual between Whistle and myself,” said Blandino. “Whistle serves as a win-win for both organizers and officials in helping to provide a sense of quality-control amongst for sports events. The goal is to build a network of referee mentorship and become a one-stop shop for connecting aspiring officials to those who have the experience willing to show them the ropes.”

In September 2018, SportsEngine, an NBC Sports Group company and the leading youth sports technology provider, added Whistle to its online marketplace of sports-related services. This addition allows Whistle to directly integrate its platform of aligning vetted officials directly to the youth sports’ league schedules.

“Adding Whistle to the SportsEngine Marketplace is part of our ongoing commitment to provide value-added benefits, along with a comprehensive suite of solutions, for more than one million youth sports clubs, leagues, governing bodies and associations,” said Rick Ehrman, vice president of corporate development. “Whistle’s partnership is a perfect fit as we continue to find new and innovative solutions that help teams manage and simplify their sports lives.”

READ MORE: Immersive Media’s Infancy Creates Industry Opportunities

Whistle has also expanded its portfolio to older sports enthusiasts. LASportsNet, the largest social sports organization in Los Angeles containing a network of adult, co-ed sports leagues, is just the latest to turn to Whistle as it continues to expand the programs. And today, Whistle announced that it acquired local competitor Rent-A-Ref.

“No one before has truly explored the full potential of utilizing technology to bridge the gap between finding game-ready officials and providing online training and mentoring for less experienced officials,” said Michael Radchuk, founder of Rent-A-Ref and current league and referee development with Whistle. “I strongly believe that this market is very untapped. After speaking with Oliver and the leadership team at Whistle, it was a no-brainer to combine forces.”

With these developments and acquisitions, Whistle still has big plans ahead. With a full launch scheduled for mid-2019, Whistle has currently surpassed 10,000 signups and mobile downloads to date as it now kicks off the formal seed round of financing.

The platform is operated across the country including states such as California, New York, and recently Florida. The future is bright for Whistle and for aspiring officials down the road looking to continue and grow the future participation of sports.

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Twitter and TNT to Offer Unique NBA Viewing Experience

Beginning at All-Star Weekend, fans will have the opportunity to view the second half of select NBA games via Twitter stream through a single-player view, as part of an initiative by the NBA, Twitter and Turner Sports.

Bailey Knecht

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Starting this weekend, NBA fans can watch games like never before, thanks to a deal between the NBA, Twitter and Turner Sports.

Twitter will live-stream the second half of 20 NBA on TNT games over the course of the rest of the season, offering a “single-player view” with an isolated camera focusing on just one player each game. The player will be chosen via fan vote on Twitter during the first half of the game.

“We were coming together and brainstorming, saying, ‘How do we capture that NBA fan on Twitter when games are actually going on?’ and we came up with the concept of the live stream during the live game,” said Mark Johnson, SVP of digital at Turner Sports. “That is where fans are consuming when they’re consuming. They’re using Twitter as a complementary, secondary experience to follow scores and highlights and keep up with what’s going on on a nightly basis.”

The new program plays into the NBA’s dedication to the digital space, particularly considering the rising popularity of #NBATwitter.

“#NBATwitter is one of the most engaged and most vibrant communities on the platform,” said TJ Adeshola, head of U.S. sports partnerships at Twitter. “For a while now, ever since we’ve had this fantastic relationship with the NBA and Turner, we’ve relied on the amazing energy around the NBA conversation on the platform. Part of the challenge has been, how do we harness all this amazing activity, energy and conversation into something that feels like an ideal complement to this community we call #NBATwitter?”

“Our following on Twitter for the NBA and NBA on TNT and NBA TV is over 34 million followers across those three,” Johnson added. “Tapping into that 34 million-plus on a Thursday night is massive exposure for the NBA itself and for NBA on TNT.”

In addition to the NBA’s popularity on social media, the program also takes advantage of the star power that draws fans to the NBA.

“I think it’s such a player-driven league,” Johnson said. “Players truly are the stars, so this plays perfectly to that concept. Twitter is also driven by players — they’re active on the platform themselves. Plus, from player walk-ins, what they’re wearing, big dunks — fans love seeing what those individual players are doing on a nightly basis, so putting fan voting in their hands and picking a specific player to watch and engage with and talk about on Twitter is really the perfect execution for that platform.”

For the initial launch, fans will have the opportunity to choose between LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Steph Curry for the iso-cam.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t say the players didn’t play a huge role in what exists today as #NBATwitter,” Adeshola said. “They’re amazing, awesome, witty and leaned in on Twitter. We’ve been able to build on the back of the NBA being such a savvy and innovative league.”

The Twitter streams will also feature exclusive commentators, which will vary from traditional Turner Sports talent to social influencers and #NBATwitter personalities like Taylor Rooks and Rob Perez.

“Our intent is we want the show to legitimately be hosted by the #NBATwitter community — folks who use the platform, who contribute to that conversation on a day-to-day basis, like Taylor Rooks, World Wide Wob, and a few other surprises we’ll announce later in the season,” Adeshola said. “These are people that participate in an evergreen, always-on basis.”

READ MORE: Timbers’ Kayla Knapp on Building a Social Voice From the Ground Up

In forming the deal, the goal was to provide a hand-in-hand viewing experience between the stream on Twitter and full coverage on TNT, according to Johnson.

“We see it as complementary experience,” he said. “We are hopeful that this will drive viewership to the TNT broadcast because we’re reaching this new-ish audience and a younger demographic, and offering a different and custom piece of content on Twitter tied to a different experience than on television. It is going to educate people and make them aware that we’ve got the full game.”

For Adeshola, finding unique ways to stream games is becoming increasingly important in order to stand out in the sports realm.

“What we know is that users might not be as inclined to watch a show or program on Twitter that looks just like the linear broadcast,” he said. “We want a differentiated, unique, quote-unquote ‘Twittery’ experience on Twitter. If we forced a format like the linear one and smacked it right on Twitter with no differentiation, it may not perform as well as one that feels Twitter-specific… This is a complement of the great work of the Turner linear broadcast, to reward and incentivize the #NBATwitter community.”

READ MORE: Channeling Napoleon Dynamite a Success for Blazers All-Star Campaign

The new program launches this Sunday during the NBA All-Star Game, which, according to Johnson, is the ideal time to capitalize on excitement around the NBA.

“For us, All-Star Weekend is the pinnacle for Turner Sports and TNT — it’s our tentpole event,” he said. “We love the playoffs as well, but what I think is unique about All-Star Weekend is that it falls late in the season — we’re almost 75 percent done with the regular season, and we just got through the trade deadline — so there’s so much buzz and hype during All-Star. The combination of those factors collide in a great way to try new things and innovate around that weekend.”

The teams at Turner, Twitter, and the NBA understand the high expectations and the risks that come with the initial launch, but they’re confident that fans will be satisfied with the product.

“Quite frankly, it’s a test, right?” Johnson said. “But we’re up for the test, and Turner, the NBA and Twitter — we’re all aggressive in this space.”

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GolfPass Could Set Standard in 21st-Century Sports Media

A partnership between NBC Sports and Rory McIlroy will bring five pillars of golf lifestyle to fans via GolfPass, a direct-to-consumer membership service.

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Photo credit: GolfPass

Golf is one of the unique sports that fans can take as seriously as the athletes they watch on TV, which has led to a new partnership between NBC Sports and superstar Rory McIlroy.

The two parties announced GolfPass last week, a direct-to-consumer membership program with five different aspects: play, learn, watch, travel and shop. GolfPass is a digital membership platform connecting a member to benefits around the lifestyle of golf.

“We’re really looking at this as building a media business based around the sport of golf that’s forward thinking and will be around for the next 25 years,” said Mike McCarley, president of golf at NBC Sports.

The lifestyle part of golf is an aspect not seen in other sports, where a day can include watching professionals playing but can also include consuming educational content and purchasing the latest equipment.

READ MORE: A Simple Ball Switch Tells a Big Story for TaylorMade

“Golf is uniquely placed, and it’s a unique game where people that watch golf on TV are the ones that play the game as well, and I think you can’t say that for a lot of sports,” McIlroy said. “I think that’s why GolfPass is so good; you make the game more accessible for people, just make it easier to play.”

GolfPass is $9.99 a month or $99 annually for the subscription product available online and on connected TV and iOS and Android apps. There’s also a GolfPass+ subscription that features several more benefits beyond the base subscription.

Among its pillars, GolfPass includes GolfNow, which collects 7,000 courses in 26 countries and offers tee times, which McCarley equated to the restaurant-reservation platform Open Table. Members also receive a free round of golf monthly at one of those courses.

The program also includes 4,000 video lessons and tips. GolfPass also includes a pro shop with partners, like TaylorMade. With an annual pass to GolfPass, users get a free dozen TaylorMade balls and discounts on the brand’s products.

Travel is also an aspect included in GolfPass, a ratings and review service for courses. And there’s also a watch aspect, which includes original content, including content featuring McIlroy and archival content from the Golf Channel.

The entirety of GolfPass is a 21st-century extension of the Golf Channel, McIlroy said.

The Golf Channel was founded nearly 25 years ago by Arnold Palmer and is now a 24/7 network reaching 500 million viewers in 70 countries in nine languages. Along with 23 weekends of golf annually, McCarley said the brand has been built as a lifestyle network to help connect golfers with the game.

McIlroy said his connection to his device is a big reason he’s bought into the GolfPass concept.

“I spend a lot of time, whether it be on my phone or iPad, watching different content, whether that’s golf or other sports or movies or whatever it is,” he said. “I think that is the way of the world nowadays. People pay for things on their phone. Everything is on this little handheld device that we keep on us, and I think that’s why GolfPass is so good because basically, everything you need to be a golfer and to have for a membership is there when you need it.”

READ MORE: Executives Believe Golf’s ‘First-and-10 Line’ Can Help Build the Sport

While GolfPass is an entry into a new model of media extension into fans’ hands, having all the different aspects within a single membership program isn’t easily translated to other sports media opportunities, McCarley said.

“A good example is, you watch a baseball game on ESPN or Major League Baseball Network; the next night you’re not watching a show that’s trying to teach you how to hit a 95-mph fastball,” he said. “But if you watch golf, you can also watch a show that’s going to help you try to fix your slice or get 10 more yards out of your drive.

“Some people like to travel and plan trips with their friends. Some people just like to get out and play as much as they can. A lot of people like to go buy the latest equipment, and we’ve built a product that scratches that itch for every person who has a real passion for the game of golf.”

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