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Artificial intelligence is the new competitive edge in sports

December 22, 2022, 11:19 AM UTC
The 2022 FIFA World Cup used multiple cutting-edge technologies.
Mike Hewitt - FIFA - Getty Images)

As soccer fans the world over tuned into the 22nd World Cup, they witnessed multiple uses of artificial intelligence. Video-assistant technology was helping referees on the field make accurate calls. More than 15,000 cameras were tracking crowds across eight stadiums, and algorithms using data points like ticket sales and stadium entrances predicted crowd patterns and helped prevent stampedes. Even the soccer balls are loaded with motion sensors, which report location to a data center 500 times per second.

In fact, this year’s World Cup in Doha, Qatar, was one of the highest-tech international sports events yet. But we haven’t even seen all the ways A.I. will affect sports.

Consider the use of video replay to improve performance. The NBA’s Steph Curry and the NFL’s Tom Brady are both fans of “film study,” going over games and moves to figure out what to repeat and what to avoid. They’re far from alone: Video replay is a common component of high-level training in many sports, among them baseball, track, hockey, and boxing.

But even as new technology has revolutionized many aspects of elite sports–from radio headsets for coach-player communication to stronger, lighter-weight gear–the technology behind film study hasn’t changed in a while. Yes, teams graduated from celluloid to digital files–but the task of organizing, editing, and learning from the film can be hugely labor intensive, requiring someone to scroll through hours of not-very-useful footage to find the plays they’re looking for. Sports organizations sometimes dedicate whole departments to this job.

A new generation of A.I. technologies promises to streamline that process considerably, giving the earliest adopters a competitive edge. In fact, combining A.I. with film study could soon unlock a level of athletic achievement that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

A.I. is already making an enormous difference in how athletes train. Companies like Seattle Sports Sciences and California-based Sparta Science, for instance, provide teams with machine-learning tools that analyze athletes’ movements to improve their form and even predict injuries.

The training app HomeCourt, which can be downloaded to a smartphone and used by individuals, harnesses the power of A.I. to allow basketball players to perfect their shooting form and track their progress. And apps like AIEndurance bring A.I.-based training to runners and cyclists.

Yet sports teams are just beginning to apply A.I. to film study, where the latest technologies should soon be able to provide far more insight in a fraction of the time. Recent advancements in object recognition and tracking hold particular promise for gaining a competitive advantage.

The newest A.I. systems can recognize individual players, movements, plays, or patterns without a human having to lay eyes on a screen. That means a coach can find exactly the footage he or she needs without searching through hours of video. For example, the Remark A.I. Box can be plugged into a team’s existing cameras to give them A.I. functionality without any need to install new sensors or other equipment.

Such breakthroughs have simplified the process of isolating the most relevant footage and compiling personalized video packages for each player on a team. Whereas once this task required several full-time staffers, with A.I. it can be done by a single individual in a matter of minutes or even automated. It’s sure to become a huge time saver for players and coaches.

The time-tested training technique of film study was overdue for a technological upgrade. Now that teams are on the cusp of incorporating A.I. in new ways, we can expect to see the results on the playing field.

Over time, A.I.-powered tools are bound to spread across different sports, leagues, and levels of play. Athletes who ignore the possibilities are missing an enormous opportunity.

Robbie Garvey is a former professional baseball player with stints in the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants organizations. He does not have an interest in the companies mentioned in this op-ed.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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