The role of AI in sports

by Arnaud POUPEAU

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an integral part of our daily lives, transforming various sectors including sports. It significantly changes how sports are played, analyzed, and enjoyed by fans. Merging with statistics, AI plays a crucial role in processing vast amounts of data, from speech translation to image recognition, and it's particularly used in performance analysis, match result prediction, and training strategy optimization.

This article will be divided into three parts. After examining how AI revolutionizes our production and consumption of sports, we will highlight how it also alters our way of practicing it. Finally, we will discuss the ethical challenges it poses and must overcome.

AI allows us to rethink how we consume sports, benefiting sports institutions, broadcasters, and fans alike.

Sport institutions increasingly need to tailor the sports offer for each fan. From buying a ticket to the experience at the stadium (or on their sofa), sports clubs and broadcasters aim for hyper-personalization of their offerings for their fans. Soon, a football fan could have personalized highlights, on-demand statistics, and commentary tailored to their preferences and language.

In the NBA, the Orlando Magic uses data and generative AI to enhance fans' experiences throughout their journey. A partnership with SAS has equipped the club with various tools to make each fan's experience unique.  In one year, the franchise saw a 400% year-over-year increase in sales made on their fan app(1), thereby deepening the emotional bond with the game and fostering a more vibrant and engaged community(2).

Broadcasters also greatly benefit from this technology. Christian Muller, CEO of Infronx X, regards AI as the most promising technology for the future of broadcasting. “AI makes it possible, for example, to automatically generate content [...] in just a fraction of the time it would take a human. This means that, for the same amount of money, we can now produce better quality summaries”(3).
For instance, IBM has developed an AI platform to provide commentary for Wimbledon highlights, enhancing accessibility and immersion for fans.
AI and machine learning can also significantly improve visual storytelling: Quidich Innovation Labs uses the Quidich Tracker to provide real-time tracking of cricket players, offering a 3D model of the field and players on the screen, thus giving viewers a clearer understanding of the game dynamics(4).

In my opinion, AI has the potential to further improve the fan experience significantly. With the development of the metaverse and virtual reality headsets (like the Apple Vision Pro), how will the spectator experience evolve? Could we experience stadium immersion from our couches through a headset? These are currently unanswered questions, but they are cases I strongly believe in.

The emergence of AI is also giving a new impulsion to sports practice, both at the amateur and professional levels. Use cases are numerous.

At the professional level, AI-powered technology is enabling coaches to track, analyze, and optimize the performance of their athletes in ways that were previously impossible. Fabien Galthié, the French national rugby team coach, has turned to the company SAS Viya, specializing in AI, to create a platform tailored to the needs of his team. The team's staff uses this technology to address simple questions: How can we train better to perform better in matches? How will we defeat our next opponent? What did the teams that beat them do, and what did those that didn't beat them do? AI has the ability to draw on a large volume of data on which it trains, to then make decisions or predict events. Through its interactive AI platform, the French team's staff can interrogate it to "objectify their intuitions”(5).

At the amateur level, we also find this kind of tool serving athletes. PlayerMaker, a British company has developed a AI-driven tracker to monitor players’ performance during football games and practices. The technology tracks a broad range of metrics such as distance covered, speed, acceleration, and fatigue levels. This allows coaches to monitor their players’ performance in real-time and make informed decisions about how to best utilize their players(6).
Others like Footbar are betting on similar features, more focused on gamification, aiming to create a social network for football(7).

The benefits of AI in sports are manifold, and some clubs like the Toulouse Football Club have shown that the combined use of data and AI has improved the club's performance(8). Tomorrow, it is likely that we will see more and more clubs in this situation, across all sports. Additionally, we could observe a decrease in the number of injuries, associated with better average player fitness. Battles on the field will become increasingly tactical.

Furthermore, AI can act as a scouting tool, giving everyone a chance. Today, due to a lack of detection means, we are probably missing out on pure talent. What if a pure talent like Mbappé is hiding somewhere in Africa or Asia? The emergence of big data and analysis tools like AI will enable their detection and give everyone a chance.

As we have seen, AI is becoming an essential tool for enhancing athletes' performances and pushing the boundaries of sports excellence. However, it also raises numerous ethical questions. The aim of this section is not to delve into all these questions comprehensively, but to explore the positioning of artificial intelligence in the supervision of sporting events: What is the role of AI in overseeing sports events? How is it evolving?

In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of AI technologies to assist in refereeing. In tennis, Hawk-Eye is a supplementary video refereeing technology that players can request to use a limited number of times in a set. If there is doubt about a ball, players signal to the referee with an arm gesture, and a video shows the exact impact point of the ball. Following the adoption of this technology across the circuit, the ATP has announced the Tour-wide adoption of Electronic Line Calling Live (ELC Live) from 2025. This advanced officiating technology covers all court lines for 'out' calls throughout matches, a role traditionally carried out by on-court line judges(9). While the purpose of this technology has not been contested, its announcement has sparked a flurry of reactions, mentioning that it would take away the charm of the sport and also lead to the disappearance of some professions (line judges).

In soccer, VAR was used for the first time in 2016. Initially, the philosophy of this technology was to use it sparingly, to correct a "clear refereeing mistake." Today, many experts accuse referees of using it to "re-referee" situations. Éric Borghini, the president of the Federal Refereeing Commission (CFA), says: "We need to clarify things because no one understands anything anymore, nor the players, nor the coaches, nor the clubs. The referees are probably lost. A decision needs to be made quickly. It has to be video assistance for refereeing and not video refereeing.(10)"

This specific case, in my opinion, illustrates a general idea in the sports ecosystem: the balance for the use of AI has not yet been found. AI is meant to assist referees, but are we really capable of collaborating with this technology? By nature, it is noted that referees tend to fade into the background, using AI in the forefront as if they doubted their legitimacy in practicing their profession. In my view, this acknowledgment of vulnerability when confronting artificial intelligence merely marks the beginning of a process leading to the complete replacement of refereeing staff in every sport.

To conclude, artificial intelligence is undeniably reshaping the sporting landscape in a multitude of ways. The influence of AI in sport is deep, from shifting the way fans are engaging with their favorite teams, to revolutionizing the way athletes are performing sports. However, as we move through this era of technological advancement, it is crucial to take ethical considerations into account and ensure a balanced integration of AI that respects the spirit and integrity of sport. The challenge is not only to harness the vast capabilities of AI, but also to preserve the human essence that lies at the heart of sport. As we move forward, it will be essential to find harmony between technological innovation and the traditional values that make sport a central part of human culture. AI's journey into sport has only just begun, and its trajectory will significantly shape the future of how games are played, experienced and enjoyed.

References : 

(1) x, The power of AI in transforming the fan experience, BBC, 2022 

(2) Daniel David Reitberg, Beyond the Broadcast: AI Enhances the Fan Experience in Sports, Medium, 2024 

(3) x, Nouvelles règles et nouvelle donne dans l’industrie sportive, PWC, 2024 

(4) Ecaterina Caprari, AI in Sports Broadcasting, Cuez, 2024

(5) Roxane Lechat, Amélioration des performances, suivi des joueurs, arbitrage, commentaires... Comment l'intelligence artificielle inonde le monde du sport, FranceInfo, 2023

(6) Gautam Raturi, AI in Sports Training, Medium, 2023

(7) Lucas Billard, "Meteor", le capteur Footbar qui permet de la jouer comme les pros, FootMercato, 2022

(8) x, TFC : La data, au cœur de la révolution toulousaine, MadeInFoot, 2022

(9) x, Electronic Line Calling Live To Be Adopted Across The ATP Tour, AtpTour, 2023 

(10) Etienne Moatti, Très utilisé et critiqué, le VAR est en surchauffe en Ligue 1, L’Equipe, 2024