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AI on game day: Pro sports franchises are turning to the tech for everything from concession stands to statistics

By Jon Swartz

Many sports teams are in a sprint to harness the power of artificial intelligence

Long lines at concession stands and snarled traffic on game day could soon be a thing of the past for many U.S. sports fans.

From faster food service to assistance navigating a jam-packed parking lot to providing a deep dive on statistics, artificial intelligence is reshaping how people experience live sporting events at stadiums and arenas in Silicon Valley and beyond.

So far, the NFL and NBA are leading the pack in their use of AI, with investments centered around promoting star players, according to experts interviewed by MarketWatch.

Many sports teams, like tech companies, are in a sprint to harness the power of AI, said Tinus Le Roux, CEO of CrowdIQ, which takes photographs at sports venues every 10 to 15 minutes to gauge crowd size, movement and behavior. The company's clients include the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Blackhawks and a quarter of the teams in the NFL, including the Minnesota Vikings.

"Whenever there is new technology like AI or wireless,there is a laughable disconnect between what teams immediately promise and the current reality," Le Roux said. "It can be lip service. But this is not exclusive to sports when it comes to AI."

Teams are primarily using AI in three ways: to enhance the fan experience, for real-time accessto deeper data on their own team's players and on their opponents, and to improve internal corporate workflow.

Four of the Bay Area's pro franchises -- the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, the NBA's Golden State Warriors, the MLB's San Francisco Giants and the NHL's San Jose Sharks -- are exploring AI services to maximize the fan experience as well as minimize some long-standing pain points.

"Concessions is most ripe for innovation," said Bill Schlough, who has served as chief information officer with the Giants for 25 years. "It's about speed of play and serving fans faster. Are they arriving earlier and staying at the game longer? That is the data we are sifting through now."

Time is literally of the essence at MLB games this season, with a new set of rules around pitch times speeding up play and shaving about 30 minutes off the length of a game.

At Oracle Park, home of the Giants, a new grab-and-go point-of-sale system the team developed with Oracle Corp. (ORCL) debuted in April. At these stations, fans place items for purchase on a checkout counter powered by AI-based technology that does not require scanning bar codes, and the purchase price appears on a screen for credit-card or online payment. The technology is from Mashgin, a computer-visualization company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

At the same time, shorter games have the Giants considering extending beer sales beyond the seventh inning, using some variation of a touchless POS system. Several other teams, among them the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, have already extended beer sales through the eighth inning.

Traffic aggravation

"Frictionless" is the mantra of Costa Kladianos, the newly hired executive vice president of technology for the 49ers.

Kladianos described himself as "high on AI" and its potential to parse "amazing" gobs of data in blur-fast time. "How can we start understanding to proactively staff up [concession] stands at key areas? Chatbots could proactively celebrate one's birthday with discounted items or free ice cream," he said.

A top priority is streamlining traffic flow and parking at Levi's Stadium, the 49ers home stadium, which will be the venue for Super Bowl XL in 2026 and will also host several World Cup games that year. Getting into and out of the stadium's parking areas has been an aggravating experience since its opening in 2014, and team's IT staff has been poring over data to minimize the pain for fans based on a game's start time and day of the week.

The first test will come in a Sunday night game against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 8. "Each of these games is a different organism," Kladianos said. "Last year, a Monday night game versus the Rams, we had more alcohol and dinner sales. A Tampa Bay game on a Sunday afternoon was the highest-grossing game" because many fans arrived early to see the return of local boy Tom Brady.

The goal of the 49ers and its technology partner, SAP (SAP.XE), is to create a venue-management system that lets the club closely monitor game-day operations and easily detect issues with the fan experience. In 2018, the 49ers and SAP created the Executive Huddle, which makes use of 10 data sources including concessions, ticketing, retail and customer-satisfaction terminals.

Golden State of AI

The Golden State Warriors' most recent season ended in disappointment with a second-round playoff exit in May, but team executives are already looking toward the 2023-24 season to deploy AI for content recommendations for fans via the Warriors' mobile app.

They are also thinking about how to provide patrons with more information on food and other amenities at the team's sparkling new palace, San Francisco's Chase Center.

"We've been dabbling in AI the past couple years," said Daniel Brusilovsky, vice president of technology for the Warriors and Chase Center. "We're trying to create a unique, personalized fan experience."

About 45 miles south in San Jose, the NHL team has ambitious plans.

"We want to pioneer the future of sports and entertainment," said Jonathan Becher, president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment, the organization that owns the San Jose Sharks. Late last year, it unveiled a state-of-the-art scoreboard that allows fans to project themselves on it via their smartphones.

On tap next season: Digital-app games linked to the scoreboard and about a hundred monitors throughout SAP Center. The conversion of staffed concession stands to digital-checkout stands. The team is also considering facial recognition that adheres to state law, which could start with checking IDs for beer sales, Becher said.

When it comes to AI, the four major American sports leagues are in still the top half of the first inning of a long game, said Gartner analyst Erick Brethenoux. "We're at the formative stage. Formula One, particularly McLaren and Honda , have done a lot of mind-blowing stuff with real-time data" on everything from tire performance to adapting to inclement weather on race day. Inc.'s (AMZN) AWS has worked with Formula One since 2018 and with the NFL since 2017 on AI and machine learning. Its AI use cases range from catch probability in the NFL to the odds of who will win a face-off in the NHL.

Read more: It's a tech arms race in, well, Formula One races

"Everyone is finding their way," said Alex Backman, CEO of GameOn Technology, whose AI chatbots offer fans of the Las Vegas Raiders, New York Yankees and Chicago Sky updates, game-day logistics and a virtual concierge.

"The only teams that will be left behind are those that don't pursue a strategy," said Neej Gore, chief data officer at Zeta Global (ZETA), a data-driven marketing technology company that works with the NFL and other sports leagues in the U.S. and Europe. "The largest leagues see this as the most disruptive monetization opportunity in years."

-Jon Swartz

This content was created by MarketWatch, which is operated by Dow Jones & Co. MarketWatch is published independently from Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal.


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

06-10-23 0936ET

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