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AI & ML in sportcasting: Set to revolutionise live broadcasting and change ways broadcasters monetise events

By Shirish Nadkarni

From tennis to basketball, from cricket to baseball, from badminton to football — Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used in almost every branch of sports broadcasting. It is becoming an integral part of sportscasting, increasingly impacting the way sports is covered. Petter Ole Jakobsen, Co-Founder & Chief Innovation Officer at Vizrt (short form for Visualization in Real-Time), a provider of innovative storytelling tools for media content creators in broadcast, affirmed, “AI affects everything from the level of audience engagement, and how games are covered, to the way the sports are played and analysed.” 

He maintained, “In addition to revolutionising sports for the players and sports managers, AI can also revolutionise live broadcasting and impact the way the audience experiences sports.

“In fact, if a broadcaster is not using AI to make the most of the media content and data gathered by him, his sports coverage may struggle to keep up with competitors in the years to come.”

Already, AI solutions are allowing automated match reports, robotic cameras and edited video highlights. The challenge for public service broadcasters is to navigate all the different AI applications and apply them in a way that serves the audience more efficiently and effectively, offering them a richer experience. 

There is no shortage of conversations, research, insight and cases surfacing about the benefits of integrating AI and machine learning (ML) — it is clear to see why they have not only grown to be a hot topic of discussion, but have also been widely adopted and integrated into workflows. For sports broadcasters, AI and ML are a window to the future of fan experience; for suppliers, providing easy access to these powerful tools will become essential.

“AI and ML provide increased live and intuitive data, stats, and predictions for production teams,” said Mark Egan, Faculty Member at the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The increase in data creates more opportunities for broadcasters to utilise the information within intelligent automation — translating into better quality visual content for audiences.”

Jakobsen added, “AI is also set to change the way broadcasters monetise sporting events. Based on the events on the field, AI systems can be used for automatically choosing the right camera angle to display on the viewers’ screens. It can automatically provide subtitles for live events in different languages based on the viewer’s location and language preferences.

“AI systems can also be used to identify the right opportunities to present ads based on crowd excitement levels in sporting arenas, enabling broadcasters to effectively utilise monetisation opportunities through ad sales.

“The content delivered to fans must be relevant, targeted, and add value — the more relevant and targeted the content is, the more engaging the experience to the viewer.”

During the recent pandemic, broadcasters adopted AI and augmented reality (AR) technology to enhance the viewing experience of sports when fans were not allowed in the stadiums. Canned audience audio and virtual fans were also used alongside real-time visual data and stats on the feed throughout the pandemic.

Take the Spanish football league, LaLiga, for example. The football league implemented artificial stadium audio into broadcasts to engage fans when their only option was to tune in from home. The AI layered audio recreates a familiar environment for remote viewers to feel as though the teams are not simply playing to an empty — or reduced capacity — stadium, bringing the traditional game atmosphere to life.

At the beginning of the pandemic in late-2019, leading professional services network PriceWaterhouseCoopers noted over 10 application areas in which AI use was growing across sports and events — and the speed of innovation has just increased since. From visualisation to assisted coaching, AI and ML are changing the world of sports as we know it.

PwC noted that major tournaments have begun activating AI and ML for video content, and the future potential of AI in video highlights and journalism— specifically broadcast— has accelerated during the pandemic. While AI and ML are not sure-fire ways to make any production an instant success, real value can be harnessed to engage at-home viewers, achieving better results than ever before.

Engaging sports broadcasts depend on the availability of data and the ability of the storyteller to utilise the data for analysis and produce engaging narratives. AI processes mammoth quantities of data and efficiently pulls out key stats, patterns, and — most importantly — real-time predictions of plays, matches, results, and more.

With faster, more relevant, and insightful data, broadcasters have an opportunity to bring validated insight into the game and add to their arsenal of tools in the constant battle for audience attention.

Faster data, more efficient visualisation tools, and connected AR systems can enable better gameplay insights into everything from play forecasts to deep statistics backgrounding. By transferring the analysis to the screen, producers and broadcasters enrich the viewing experience for first and second-screen audiences.

A host of companies are experimenting to leverage AI and ML in this regard. One company, Stats Perform, seeks to use AI to provide sports commentators with real-time data so they can paint a more vivid, accurate picture for their viewers.

Stats Perform’s tools power real-time collection and organisation of dozens of leagues’ AI data, resulting in increased audience engagement and participation for broadcasters who like to share previously untold stories.

Similarly, the power of AI and ML syndication of data benefits visual storytelling. Teams combining real-time data with dynamic tracking and visual elements take viewer engagement further.

Many sporting events, such as cricket, have gone years without high-level in-game data — this visual drought is coming to an end with undeniable access to increased knowledge and understanding of a fan’s favourite game. 

Amazon, Azure, and Google have large object and AI libraries that technology providers can access to reference objects within a frame of video to be accurately identified and later manipulated. Advertising companies like Mirriad use AI and object identification technologies within post production to insert brands into shows and films.

In sports production, AI and ML technology can amplify the abilities of virtual advertising, fan engagement, and innovative graphics.

Moving from post production to live sports, high-speed and accurate keying becomes essential to insert graphics into a live stream. As machines become better at recognising shifting factors and understanding context, training AI through human assistance and ML to recognise complex shifting behavioural and environmental factors within a live sports match allows for quick setup time and continuous, real-time adjustment of the key — a task no human operator could achieve effectively.

In India, where cricket is almost a religion, Planetcast Media Services brings a rich heritage of cricket video experience to its work with Star Sports, Viacom18 and Times Internet, having provided the media distribution backbone for most of the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) 16-year history. Planetcast enables IPL 2023 broadcasters to deliver live high-definition (HD) and ultra-high-definition (UHD) coverage.

“Broadcasters can make content and graphics decisions on the fly, add, or change elements in a live stream and take the audience to new heights,” said Gerhard Lang, Chief Technology Officer at Vizrt. “In the coverage of the IPL, services include playout, feed management, live feed acquisition, graphics management, multi-language commentary and AI-based highlights editing.” 

Broadcasters also need to be aware of efforts to make sports a more immersive experience for the audience with the aid of AI, “without having to depend on the tender mercies of the broadcaster”, as enunciated by Venugopal Rajagopalan, leader of the four-man Team Fanisko, which won a global hackathon sponsored by International Cricket Council (ICC) and global payments platform Nium, that attracted entries from over 9,550 teams from 113 countries.

The Fanisko solution offered an enhanced live cricket viewing experience through 3D AR, allowing users to play the game in real time from the comfort of their homes. “When a fan normally watches a live game, accessing the strokes wagon wheel of a batter, pitch maps and bowler and batter statistics, they have to switch tabs or screens, or they are at the mercy of the broadcaster.

“We provide an immersive fan engagement, where our AR technology can integrate with the ICC app, and allows you to see all the statistics.”

There is no doubt that the use of AI in sports will make the prediction of outcomes of competitions more certain and reliable. Regardless of how much we try to bring predictability and certainty into sports, there will always be that element of unpredictability and surprise in it, by virtue of the human element

After all, that is what makes sports exciting and fascinating for audiences from across the world.

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