How AI is being used in sports

6 minute read

11 February 2021

By Dominic Pride

Founder and CEO, Upstart

AI is everywhere, revolutionising one industry after another. It’s changing the way we do business and now the way we play and watch sports. 

From elite level to general consumption, wearable devices from companies such as Zephyr Technology, miCoach and Smartlife are driving and improving player performance and safety. 


While wearable sports technology in action is still in its infancy (just seven years old), it’s a significant growth area. Currently thereare 9500 professional players on 500 teams across 35 different sports in 35 separate countries, wearing athletic devices - all powered by AI according to an Ohio University study. 

While statistics and quantitative analysis are common in professional sports, AI is levelling up the playing field. Whatever your sport of choice, the trend for exploiting AI is on the rise, permeating everything from tennis to rugby, baseball to basketball, running to weight training and even Formula 1. 

We’re seeing an evolution both inside and outside the stadium where AI from sensors and wearables is being positively used to alert players and their managers to risk of injury.

Whether it’s implementing game-winning strategies, engaging (currently virtual) audiences, or monitoring collision impact, AI has penetrated the locker room, the sports field, and our TV screens. 

But AI isn’t just making the world smarter and safer for sportsmen, it’s also helping broadcasters and advertisers access valuable insights. Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Big Data are all terms mentioned in the same breath as elite sports.

So What?

AI is being used to deliver real-time in-game statistics and tactics, plus monitor player performance. 

“From a critical health perspective, could the future of collision sports be safer because of AI? ”

Player Performance - sensor technology combined with AI is being deployed to improve and enhance technique. Wearable tech provides crucial real-time data that can be analysed to personalise workouts and create bespoke training programmes. Thresholds of acceptable levels of strain and exertion can be set to prevent injury, creating an early warning detection system. 

Wearable athletic devices are incorporated into everything from apparel to bats and balls, linked by Bluetooth and GPS technology to relay real-time data that enable analysis of body mechanics.

The NBA has debuted Connexion kiosk,  a sensor-heavy walk-in consulting space which uses AI to analyse players' health data. GPS trackers have been sewn into uniforms so outputs such as balance, speed, acceleration, and motion can be monitored as well as injury prevention. Impact monitor stickers applied to players' bodies act as invisible detection signals preventing potential serious injuries including concussion and brain trauma as well as less serious ones such as over-exertion and general stress and strain to muscles and ligaments.

Injury Prevention - a huge issue facing various sports leagues, including the NFL. Many seasons (and careers) get side-lined because of injury, especially from collision impact. 

Amazon AWS, one of the world’s largest providers of cloud computing services, is working with the NFL in a partnership to create tools designed to fight football related injuries. Using their cloud services, Amazon AWS analyses huge volumes of health data (Big Data), as well as scanning video images, to help teams treat injuries and rehabilitate players. 

The collaboration is intended to understand more about how injuries occur and ultimately to prevent them. Creating a “Digital Athlete” platform, computer simulations of NFL players can be modelled to play out scenarios on the field without harming any physical players - “no NFL players were harmed in the writing of this Blog post!” 

The platform combines machine learning with machine vision technologies and NFL data sets to predict and prevent injuries.  It’s also envisaged that “Digital Athlete” will use this full arsenal of technologies to detect concussions and the forces that cause them.

Here are just some of the other ways that we’re seeing AI pave the way for victory in the sports arena.

Enhanced coaching function - AI is being used by front line management and locker room coaching staff both before, during and after games to create a winning advantage. A combination of wearable tech and high-speed cameras for instance, can measure speed, velocity, swerves and swings of everything from a football, to a tennis ball and yes, a direct hit. 

This data can be used to predict and prevent outcomes by influencing positioning during play. 

Enriched experience - Want to understand more about an opponent's strengths and weaknesses? AI can assist. It provides a powerful tool for advanced performance analytics. 

Indian tech giant Infosys teamed up with Roland-Garros, organisers of the popular tennis tournament, to deliver point-by-point moving data statistics. This enabled them to rank and re-rank tennis players statistics in real time, enhancing the fan’s experience. Infosys Stats+ describes it as stats driven by match influence. Even in 2018, BBC worked with IBM to 100% line edit a sequence from match footage

AI is also used in sports marketing to pick the best camera angles for in-match and post-match replays and highlights.  It also provides commentators with access to statistics to run better live commentary. AI-based chatbots and virtual assistants provide engaging information about any given sport.

Media automation - AI can help pick out highlights of games to distribute via television and mobile. It is also being used by the print industry to transform raw data into readable stories. Firms including Opta and Grab have joined hands to publish real-time video clips to fans powered by AI.

So Now What?

So, what’s the future of sports?

AI is without doubt, here to stay in business, entertainment and sports. Within a short space of time it is rapidly augmenting the work of players, medics and broadcasters.

As technology delivers us better processors, sensors, and algorithms,  

“we will see sports and AI conjoin even more.”

To perform at the highest levels, sports organisations will need to embrace different strands of AI. Management, pundits, and the public will be able to make better predictions about the future outcomes of games and competitions too. 

AI will not only affect performance but also advertising revenues as the entire sporting industry looks to adopt more sophisticated AI technologies to gain a competitive edge over rivals. 

The use cases developed with the budget and glamour of sports may also be transferable and exploitable in other areas, for example for industrial safety and healthcare. 

At Upstart we specialise in helping business leaders understand how disruptive and enabling tech can be applied across sectors.  To find out about our work and how it can be applied to the industry that you’re in, get in touch with us TODAY. 

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