Preaching Due Diligence, Sports Tech Leaders Ponder Next-Gen AI Tools for Enhanced Fan Experience

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT promise new possibilities — and potential pitfalls

As advanced artificial-intelligence tools like OpenAI’s ChatGPT capture the cultural zeitgeist, much of the discussion within the sports industry is how these sophisticated AI– and machine-learning–driven platforms can enhance the fan experience both at the venue and during the broadcast or livestream.

“You have to experiment [with these technologies because] everybody’s jumping on the bandwagon,” said LA28 Chief Information Officer David Michael, who is helping create the technological infrastructure behind the LA 2028 Summer Olympics, speaking at the SBJ Tech Week conference in New York City this month. “It’s going to become a standard that people expect.”

‘We Need To Be Ready for It’

Michael cited corporate-software giant Salesforce’s recently announced Einstein GPT, which is driven by OpenAI and is “the world’s very first generative AI program for CRM” (customer relationship management), as an example of how generative AI is becoming commonplace at large organizations.

From left: Charlie Myers, chief technology officer, Monumental Sports & Entertainment; Sumit Arora, VP, strategy and analytics, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment; Aaron Amendolia, deputy CIO, NFL; David Michael, chief information officer, LA28; and moderator Taylor Bloom, managing director, sports technology business, SBJ (Photo: Marc Bryan-Brown)

“I think it’s necessary for us to be continuously looking at these [technologies] and working out how we can actually leverage them and how we can change the experience,” he added. “A few years ago, having an Alexa skill, where you could ask it questions about your sports team, was the [cool] thing. But now, when you use Alexa, … you want it to be more like ChatGPT. The technology is going take these big incremental steps, and we need to be ready for it so that we don’t have an instant legacy [product that] we’ve been working too hard on [but] is no longer [relevant].”

The Potential for AI-Generated ‘Game-Day Itineraries’

Although many teams, leagues, broadcasters, and venues are keen to see what ChatGPT and other generative AI technologies could mean for sports, their technology leaders are emphasizing the importance of due diligence when it comes to nascent technologies.

“I think you have to be careful with these new technologies as they emerge,” said NFL Deputy CIO Aaron Amendolia. “Because every media story right now is about how somebody could trick [an AI bot] into saying something really scary and Terminator-like. As you put your brand around these things, how do you get them into a place where they express exactly what you need them to do to be consistent and to deliver valuable information to your fans or your event attendees while drawing across multiple sources of data?”

He addressed how a pro-sports team could potentially take in public transportation schedules, stadium ingress and egress data, and opportunities to buy food and beverages, and combine that with tracking data and direct fan input to create an ideal schedule/itinerary for the game-day experience. However, he again stressed that, before a project like this is approved, the AI technology being used must be thoroughly vetted.

“When you put sources of data in front of a fan and they make their own decisions about it,” he said, “you’ve given people the ability to make their own decisions. But, if you have an AI creating an entire itinerary and it doesn’t go well, that’s not going to reflect well on your brand, and [the story] is going to be about [your organization], not about the technology. I think that we have to be putting these things to the test, implementing [them] in smaller areas, and then making sure they’re consistent and deliver the right experience.”

AI Has ‘High Upside’ But Potential To Be ‘Weaponized’

Monumental Sports & Entertainment — which owns the Washington Capitals, Mystics, and Wizards and multiple venues and recently acquired the NBC Sports Washington RSN — is bullish on what AI could offer fans at the venue and watching at home.

“I think that AI is a tool that has high upside potential across multiple paths of our business,” said Charlie Myers, chief technology officer, Monumental Sports & Entertainment. “Everything from customer service to analysis of data lakes to player performance to being able to provide content personalization.”

However, much like Amendolia, Myers stressed the potential dangers of this next wave in AI technology, especially AI voice-replication. He noted how French DJ/producer David Guetta recently produced a song that used AI technology to add the “voice” of rapper Eminem.

“There’s some cool stuff that’s being done with AI voice,” he said. “But that [technology] is now being weaponized. It’s being used as what I’ll call ‘voice fishing’ for cyber. Those are the types of things that we also need to aware of. You need to look at how you can take advantage of it, but I think you also need to be looking at how do you prepare and defend against it. For us, that’s about educating. We have a lot of high-profile people in our organizations; how do you make them aware [that] ‘this may not be what you think it is?’”

‘It’s the Execution That Matters’

Although the hype currently behind ChatGPT and generative AI is deafening today, so too were many bleeding-edge technologies that never gained traction long term – or at least had to wait for the right moment far down the road.

“It took a pandemic for a decade-old technology like QR codes to actually be effective,” said Sumit Arora | Vice President, Strategy & Analytics, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. “So I don’t think the thesis of ‘there’s something out here that’s going to help us’ is incorrect necessarily. But It’s more about when? And over what horizon? And what is the value? And what problems is it solving? When I look at OpenAI and Chat GPT, it’s just about finding the areas where it’s actually going to make a difference.

Arora added that successful innovations in the sports industry are never actually about the technology itself, but rather how that technology can add value to the fan experience. Arora said it is up to organizations like MLSE to listen to their fans, observe what’s happening inside the venue, and keep up with the latest trends in the industry overall first and foremost – and then deciding how these next-gen technologies can factor into the overall fan experience.

“At the end of the day, our fans don’t care how we deliver something better to them; they just want something better. And we have to remind ourselves that it’s not just about the tech,” he said. “Ten years ago, people were getting excited about big data, then about AR and VR and…[and now] blockchain – all of these things are innovative, but they themselves are not the innovation. Your ability to execute well and change the experience for the better…that’s the innovation. It’s the execution that matters.”

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