The Real Score: Will AI necessarily make sports better? Will AI make the sport experience better?

Yiran Su

Yiran Su

Published: 05-16-2024 4:02 PM

Artificial intelligence is experiencing a renaissance. Tools like ChatGPT and Copilot are becoming a daily part of conversations. AI’s history stretches back nearly as far as computers themselves, but the advent of generative AI has made it more accessible and impactful in everyone’s life. Now anyone can master an AI tool with just a few quick video tutorials. This surge of interest is particularly pronounced in the sports industry, where AI’s longstanding roots are now branching into new areas. At the heart of this technology is machine learning, where computers emulate the human brain’s ability to analyze and predict outcomes from vast amounts of data. This capability has made AI the cornerstone of numerous sports analytics platforms, significantly enhancing their ability to process immense datasets with remarkable speed and accuracy.

As we adopt what many herald as “better” sports experiences, more informed, analytical, and predictive, there is a growing backlash. Fans, voicing their concerns on topics like “When Machines Join the Game” express fear that this focus on data-driven insights might strip away the raw excitement and inherent unpredictability that makes sports so captivating. This resistance is further fueled by the disruptive advancements of generative AI, which has capabilities extending to the automatic development of content including audio, texts, and even videos.

Generative AI is now omnipresent in sports: AI-generated commentary is being trialed at prestigious events like the Masters and Wimbledon; Sports Illustrated has been scrutinized for articles authored under pseudonyms with AI-generated photos; the NBA has introduced the “Ask NBA” AI chatbot; and even virtual fitness influencers and AI-powered social media accounts are becoming mainstream. For instance, Naomi Osaka and Tom Brady have collaborated with Meta to utilize their likenesses for bots that engage fans in real-time, human-like conversations based on their public personas.

Despite the excitement, the controversy surrounding AI’s involvement in sports raises questions beyond the authenticity of fans’ game experience, extending to the authenticity of sports teams, services, and even athletes. My recent research indicates that Generation Z harbors significant doubts about the integration of emerging technology, a sentiment mirrored in their critique of virtual reality’s lack of human interaction, the absence of genuineness when athletes use AI to engage fans, and the sports media’s negligence to utilize AI in reporting sports stories.

Another study on sports influencer marketing found that consumers often perceive influencers as non-human when they disclose using AI to assist with their content creation. This reaction brings into question the ‘humanness’ of the influencer, suggesting that it prompts deeper questions about what fundamentally defines humanity. Interestingly, this perceived fakeness does not always elicit negative responses. Another piece of research discovered that participants are open to receiving emotional support from AI-generated content in apps, as they sometimes prefer not to engage directly with a human coach. In other words, the content’s artificiality also shields consumers from feelings of being judged.

There is no doubt that AI provides tools that make life more efficient, but does it truly better sports experiences? The ongoing debate around AI in sports serves as a reflection on a pervasive belief in our society — that new technologies automatically lead to improvements. This belief is deeply rooted in a neoliberal view of progress, which often champions technological advancement as an inherent good. Yet, this perspective may overlook deeper issues, such as algorithmic biases embedded in AI due to historical racial and gender prejudices, both intentional and unconscious. In sports, the burden of ensuring AI is used ethically often falls on organizations and fans, but regulating the design of AI algorithms necessitates a more comprehensive approach. Fairness, equality, privacy, and access demand more than just good intentions; they also require structural support and regulation.

What is most interesting is that, as we grapple with questions about resolving historical issues in sports related to equality and technology access, most Generation Z research participants believe that the ‘next generation’ will be the ‘AI generation.’ Generation Z claims that the upcoming generation has grown up immersed in gaming environments where AI’s influence on sports is fully embraced. Dubbed “Generation Alpha,” they are natives of gaming metaverse platforms like Roblox and Ignite, much as Generation Z grew up as natives of the mobile phone era. Major sports leagues such as the NFL and MLB are creating gaming platforms to target the new generation. As teenagers increasingly utilize AI tools to craft their “second life” on these platforms, the prospects seem very promising. These platforms even offer a novel reverse socialization experience for parents unfamiliar with them.

However, concerns about addiction among teenagers persist, especially as sports teams rely on microtransactions for virtual equipment and outfits, coupled with instances of gender and racial toxicity and harassment. It seems that AI excels at generating new content based on historical data, but it falls short in addressing pre-existing issues. As we stand on the precipice of a new technological era, we find ourselves gripped by a profound and unsettling realization: we are, once again, thrusting the excitement of an innovative technology upon the shoulders of our younger generation, without fully grappling with the ethical quandaries and the potential toll on their well-being. Just as we witnessed with the internet and social media, we are rushing headlong into this brave new world, blind to the new and often unseen challenges that AI tools will inevitably unleash.

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One thing is certain: AI is here to stay, and the ongoing battle between its benevolent and malevolent uses continues. For instance, FIFA utilized AI to analyze over 5.1 million posts and comments in 35 languages, protecting 697 players and coaches across 2,111 accounts during the men’s and women’s World Cups, with much of the discriminatory content ironically generated by AI bots. Ultimately, sports remain a human-centric industry, and AI should neither dominate gaming content nor replace the human spirit and aspirations that draw millions of fans. AI is a technology that we are progressively learning to control and utilize more responsibly. As sport fans, much like how we’ve adapted to a ‘social media diet,’ we may soon find ourselves needing an ‘AI diet.’

Dr. Yiran Su is an Assistant Professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, housed in the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. Yiran can be reached at yiransu@umass.edu