How AI is redefining your sports experience right now

Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform many sectors across the economy. The sports realm isn’t excluded from that. 

New technologies are already changing the way sports are played, viewed and consumed. From enhancing athlete recovery, to live performance tracking and influencing rule changes, AI’s plunge into sports is providing leagues more data and analysis than they’ve ever had.

Let’s start with football. The NFL has arguably led the way in integrating AI into sports. The league has partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) since 2017, and at the beginning of 2024 created the Digital Athlete, a tool using AI and machine learning to “build a complete view of players’ experience, which enables NFL teams to understand precisely what individual players need to stay healthy, recover quickly, and perform at their best.” The technology collects data from multiple sources, including game day data using AWS, and essentially takes video and data from training, practice and in-game action. It then uses AWS technology to “run millions of simulations of NFL games and specific in-game scenarios” to identify which players are at the highest risk of injury. Teams use that information to develop injury prevention, training and recovery regimens. The technology was used by all 32 teams this past NFL season.

AI and the NFL’s relationship goes beyond the Digital Athlete initiative. In March, the league implemented a new kickoff rule after predictive analysis identified plays and body positions that most likely lead to injuries. The process included capturing data through chips in players’ shoulder pads, Brian Rolapp, chief media and business officer for the NFL, recently explained at The Washington Post Futurist Tech Summit, which was sponsored by Mozilla.

Consumers get a chance to experience the league’s AI investment, too. During the NFL and Amazon’s “Thursday Night Football” TV broadcasts, viewers have the option to watch games with “Prime Vision,” an alternate broadcast powered by Next Gen stats, a real-time player and ball tracking data system. Prime Vision can do fun things like highlight a potential blitzing defender on a play based on what happens before the ball is snapped. 

At other levels of football, AI is prevalent for the next generation of players with dreams of making it to the NFL. Exos, a sports science-driven performance company based in Arizona, has been employing AI technology for NFL draft hopefuls in the pre-draft training process for years. Several of the top picks in recent years have traveled to Exos’ facility in Phoenix to complete training, shed time off their 40-yard dashes and improve their vertical leaps, among other things. 

“When an athlete arrives, we take them through a robust sports science evaluation process,”  said Anthony Hobgood, Exos’ senior director of performance. “This evaluation gives us critical information about the athletes’ force profile, muscle-to-bone ratio and fundamental movement qualities. For example, some athletes will run faster by putting on more muscle, while others’ performance could be negatively impacted by putting on more muscle. The data we collect allows our team to make informed decisions about the game plans we build for our athletes. Our speed coaches have a combined total of over 40 years of experience training over 1,500 NFL draft prospects. When an athlete decides to train at Exos, they can be confident they are getting the best system ever created for NFL draft preparation.”

This training has paid off: From 2015-2023, Exos has produced 743 draft picks, an average of 83 per year, including 127 first-rounders. Last spring, almost every NFL team except one (Atlanta) drafted an Exos-trained athlete. 

“Our system has been tried and tested for over 25 years and uses data and the latest science in order to ensure our athletes have the very best,” Exos VP of Sport Adam Farrand said.

The NBA has used AI for some time as well. This February, it debuted a generative AI feature at its All-Star tech summit called NB-AI, which aims to enhance and personalize the live game experience for fans. The technology can make game highlights look like an animated superhero movie — think a film based on a certain bug that resides in New York. Here’s how it sketches people:

“Today, AI is creating a similar excitement to what we saw around the early days of the internet,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said at the presentation. “Intuitively, most of us have a sense that artificial intelligence is going to change our lives. The question is, ‘How?’”

The WNBA also utilizes similar tech as the NFL’s Digital Athlete, obtaining three-dimensional player and ball-tracking data through its partnership with Genius Sports’ Second Spectrum. WNBA coaches and front office leaders have access to analytical tools, including shot quality, maximum speed and defensive matchup data. 

While the world of baseball has long stood behind its history and tradition, it has also stepped into the revolution of AI — in fun and strategic ways. 

Baseball has been using data and AI to aid in scouting players, player development, injury risk assessment, video analysis and game strategy. There are even AI chatbots that can create scouting reports for MLB players and evaluate them on metrics AI believes are the best representatives of their abilities. Minor league baseball clubs are embracing Uplift Labs, which uses mobile movement tracking and 3D analysis tech for scouting players. The system uses mobile devices to “accurately capture athletic movements in any environment, gaining insights into performance optimization.” 

In February, the Houston Astros were among the first MLB clubs to introduce facial recognition technology to allow fans into their ballpark. (The New York Mets were the first to do this, in 2021.) The San Francisco Giants even used AI and machine learning to understand what giveaway products they should offer fans for game promos.

AI’s capabilities in the sports world are only expanding as the technology evolves at an extraordinary pace. This shift provides major sports leagues opportunities to continue to improve their product on and off the field, while giving fans an exciting way to experience the games they love.

But there’s still a human element in sports we can’t ignore as these advancements continue. The human aspect is what makes sports so great, after all. While AI can provide teams data about why a basketball player is struggling to shoot the ball well, for example, it has limitations and can’t replace a coach evaluating that player’s performance on video, talking and empathizing with them and coaching them through their struggles. The human interaction — not AI — builds trust between athletes and coaches to navigate those situations.  Or, while a team like the Giants can certainly utilize AI to determine fan giveaways, going to a tailgate and talking directly to fans about what they’d like to see incorporated at games is a better route. AI can never bench the human side of the sports experience, it should be utilized as a resource for leagues, players and coaches while still prioritizing the human element.

Protecting these sports, while following laws and regulations, is important to remember as the excitement around these tools grows. The work teams and leagues need to do to preserve the history and human side of these sports while progressing them forward and ensuring ethical AI is powered is critical.

Device-level encryption from a name you can trust

Try Mozilla VPN

Share on Twitter