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Illustration: Andrew Witherspoon / Axios

Billy Beane, the analytics-driven general manager of the budget-strapped Oakland A's, shook up sports and corporate boardrooms by melding overlooked, under-valued players into oddball yet cheap and winning teams. As depicted in the book Moneyball , Beane enshrined a new job category in serious sports — director of analytics. But there is one big thing that it never accomplished: win Beane a championship.

Enter artificial intelligence: Some pro-sports teams are exploring how machine learning, the leading form of AI, might help where Moneyball has fallen short.

Richard Zemel, an AI consultant for the Toronto Raptors, tells Axios that among things that could transform a season are forecasting an opposing team's next play, or signaling whether, if you swap out one player for another, "we go on to win the championship."

How it would work: For a picture of what we're talking about, I went to Rob Schumaker, a computer science professor at the University of Texas at Tyler and co-author of Sports Data Mining. Here is what he said:

"Machine learning could analyze all of the players on the court and where the ball is to compute the current play state and then, using historical data of similar play states, determine the probabilities of the next state, which could be where the ball moves next or what offensive play might be next. The reason why this works is that humans have biases and are never truly random. A player in a certain situation will do what has worked for them in the past, and the historical data can tell us this."

That is all theoretical, though, because, as of now, sports AI is in its infancy: Mark Silver, president of Synergy Sports Technology, a data and analytics firm for basketball teams, says that at the moment, live, in-game forecasting is something from a "fantasy world."

Not only has no one figured out how to predict plays or the future performance of players, but they also don't know how they would apply the knowledge if they obtained it. "You couldn't communicate the information fast enough" to players on the court, he said.

But data — the fuel of machine learning — is becoming much, much richer: Silver's company and SportVU, a competing firm, both provide microscopic coverage of every game — up to 100 shots of every player, every second, in addition to where the ball is, and what's happened overall.

  • This data is helping AI specialists like the Raptors' Zemel, a professor at the University of Toronto and research director at the Vector Institute, an AI center. Zemel says the Raptors' sports analytics team "has good intuition," but that "I am trying to automate it using machine learning." Zemel spelled out his approach in a paper he co-authored last year.

At this point, AI can help with psychological profiles: Teams may scout hundreds of players, and spend days visiting the homes of those they are taking seriously. As part of of the recruitment, they conduct psychometric tests such as Myers-Briggs to vet mental strength, a key determinant of elite athletic performance.

But Jonathan Kreindler, founder of Receptiviti, a Toronto-based AI startup, said AI can deliver better results than standard psychometrics. Kreindler said his team hands a potential recruit an iPad, and asks three to five open-ended questions in order to derive about 300 words of speech. That is sufficient for the AI to work, he said. "Now I can decide if I want to go visit them at home and so on," he told Axios.

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

1 dead after pickup truck hits Pride spectators in Florida

Police investigate the scene where a pickup truck drove into a crowd of people at a Pride parade in Wilton Manors, Florida, on Saturday. Photo: Jason Koerner/Getty Images

A driver in a pickup truck hit spectators at a Pride festival in Wilton Manors, Florida, killing a man and leaving another person hospitalized Saturday, authorities said.

Details: Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told reporters police had "apprehended the driver" and that the vehicle missed a parade car carrying Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) "by inches."

Updated 6 hours ago - Sports

Uganda Olympic team member tests positive for COVID in Tokyo

The Uganda National boxing team's Catherine Nanziri (L) and others arrive for check-in at Entebbe international airport in Wakiso, Uganda on Friday, ahead of their departure to participate in the Tokyo Olympic Games. Photo: Badru Katumba/AFP via Getty Images

A Uganda Olympic team member tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Japan late Saturday, officials said.

Why it matters: Japan's government has faced criticism for vowing to host the Tokyo Games next month as coronavirus cases rise. The Ugandan team is the second to arrive in Japan after the Australian women's softball players, and this is the first COVID-19 infection detected among the Olympic athletes, Al Jazeera notes.

Updated 10 hours ago - World

In photos: Brazilians rally against Bolsonaro as COVID deaths top 500,000

A June 19 protest in São Paulo, Brazil, against the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against precautionary health measures despite the soaring COVID-19 death rate and cases. Photo: Rodrigo Paiva/Getty Images

Demonstrators took to the streets in at least 22 of Brazil’s 26 states to protest President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic — as deaths from COVID-19 in the country surged past 500,000 Saturday, per AP.

The big picture: Brazil has the world's second-highest coronavirus death toll and third-highest number of reported cases. Only 12% of the country's population has been vaccinated against the virus, AP notes.