The power of sport, in all its flawed glory, as a very human marketing tool

James Masters of Havas Play UK delineates the role of AI in the world of sports and the boundless opportunities marketers should get the jump on, positioning sport as the ultimate ‘real’ experience in an increasingly non-human world.

Havas Play UK
Werbung/Full Service/ Integriert
London, Großbritannien
See Profile
James Masters
Strategy Director Havas Play UK

AI, it is impossible not to have seen the headlines - spanning the full range from utopian optimism to dystopian destruction. AI has the potential to change every element of the world around us. And whilst other commentators will explore macro-overviews, this article will dive into our very own niche; namely, the world of sports marketing and partnerships.

Because, whilst sport faces challenges with AI, opportunities abound. And, perhaps, most counter-intuitively, the opportunity for sport to be a bastion for authentic human experiences in an otherwise AI world. An opportunity that, we as marketeers, need to sow the seeds of now.

Sport is an attractive marketing tool for brands, be they endemic or partners, simply because people care about it. That is the bedrock of passion point marketing. Its most basic principle is to activate around said passion in ways that are authentic, compelling, and culturally relevant.

Our passions are being shaped by AI and the conventional rules that exist are being broken. We are seeing an AI image win the Sony World Photography Awards, a deluge of AI-written & illustrated books for sale on Amazon, and the opening of the world’s first AI gallery in Amsterdam. 

It is totally conceivable that music lovers of the future will sit in a metaverse virtual arena to watch AI-generated musicians play original machine-made songs. And it is conceivable, because its already here. This year alone, we’ve seen an AI collaboration between Drake and The Weeknd (Abel Tesfaye) where neither artist was involved, an AI Liam Gallagher fronting a ‘lost Oasis’ album, and the South Korean debut of robot conductor. Meanwhile, the “jaw-dropping” holograms of ABBA Voyage are part of the public consciousness, and the Travis Scott Fortnite concert, way back in 2020, is literally old news.  

ABBA Voyage | Photo by Johan Persson

In the not-too-distant future, the experience of every passion that we consume could be shaped by AI: AI generated blockbusters, productions written by acclaimed AI playwrights, models walking down the catwalk in virtual outfits that are personalised to our personal preferences. But what of sport?

From FIFA’s semi-automated VAR to talent scouting tools, and from betting models to automated journalism, AI is already deeply embedded in sport. This year’s Wimbledon has debuted AI-powered commentary and new Williams F1 team principal has dubbed the increased use of AI in the sport as “exciting, for sure”.

In particular, AI has transformed the training regimes of elite athletes and amateurs alike. It’s no surprise that the pros have access to video analysis programmes, that curate bespoke training regimes, and predictive modelling programmes to determine marginal gains versus competitors. However, the rise of interactive training apps, like NBA partner Homecourt, are a game-changer too for the masses.

Thinking forwards, an AI Olympics is imaginable. Why not? Fans could get the chance to see Usain Bolt in his (virtual) prime competing against a Jesse Owens augmented to run as he might with up-to-date equipment and training regimes. They might not even run on a modern 100m track; in a totally AI world, we could see them compete in the 1930s or the moon.

Jesse Owens | Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated

AI-generated virtual sport might even react in real-time to your emotions. Say that the AI model learnt – perhaps from voice prompts and heart monitoring software - that you particularly enjoyed a run of aces in tennis… well, then it might adapt to show you just that. Not every set, of course, but the perfect amount to keep you interested.

Some might argue, however, that personalised sport for individual tastes is a contradiction, because sport’s magic lies in the communal, collective experience. I would agree. But how about an en masse AI approach? Imagine Premier League Virtual, where machine learning – based on years of emotional, social, and coverage data from around the world - determines the perfect time in the season for a shock result to add maximum drama to the season.

In today’s reality, however, there is no sport no more embedded in the world of AI than chess. It has been 25 years since IBM’s Deep Blue beat then world champion Garry Kasparov. Now chess engines compete between themselves for utter superiority in a game that had been the exclusive plaything of humans for 1,500 years. As the game at the vanguard of AI, chess provides us with clues for the future of sport more widely.

Whilst computers can outcompete any human, humans retain appeal as the stars of the sport. The public, at large, have never heard of chess engines Stockfish or AlphaZero. However, grandmaster Magnus Carlsen has featured in a documentary of his own life, has 1.2m followers on Instagram, and was named as one of TIME’s most influential people in the world.

Last year, Magnus was at the centre of a made-for-tabloid scandal when his competitor Hans Niemann was accused of cheating via the aid of vibrating anal beads that directed his moves. Granted these anal beads, the internet speculated, were controlled by an accomplice consulting chess AI in real-time; however, there is something uniquely and ridiculously human about the drama. And the reality is, that we love the drama of human sport.

Sport goes beyond pure performance in the field of play. It is everything that surrounds it that makes it so compelling. We want to know what goes on in locker rooms before kick-off, we enjoy the sight of victory parades. Stories and dramatic narrative arcs attract our attention and emotional investment. The Williams sisters are all the more incredible because of their literally filmic upbringing. We root for a man who was once a boy in Argentina with a growth hormone deficiency and a love for football.

Williams Sisters | Photo Courtesy of NPR

And it is not just success we enjoy; part of sport’s appeal is the humanity of errors. Take football for instance. Some of the most iconic (and infamous) moments of the game are mistakes. Gerrard’s slip. Suarez’s bite. Beckham’s red card in ’98. Such is the appeal of human behaviour, that chess engine Maia is being designed to make “human moves – not necessarily the best move”. 

As Maia and any chatbot you’ve mistaken for a person proves, AI can be extraordinary human-like. But even so, AI sport would be inherently unnatural. Unpredictable but on the edge of scripted. One might argue that spectators - suspending their disbelief - wouldn’t be put off by this. After all, arguably slower sports like test cricket could ensure that every game had all the ingredients to be as exciting as this year’s Ashes. What’s more, from lucha libre to WWE, scripted sports currently command massive, passionate audiences. However, there is a reason why WWE exists alongside boxing, MMA, Olympic wrestling and so on.

Simply, the majority of people value the unpredictability of sport. The sense that anything could happen at any moment, and there is no puppet master (whether a writer or an AI) controlling things behind-the-scenes. Of course, a dominant Team USA should have beaten Team GB in the Men's 4x100m relay at Athens ‘04, but one flawed baton handover changed everything. An unfancied Team GB winning by one one-hundredth of a second is why people watch sport. 

Photo courtesy of The Sun UK

What would have it felt like to have been in the crowd that day? The experience was extraordinary enough, as friends and families gathered around their TVs – and it will be in the metaverse stadiums of the future. However, there is something magically human about the living, breathing, spine-tingling, hair-raising, goosebump-inducing atmosphere of a sports crowd in full throttle. That collective desire to physically be there, is why people follow their teams around the world and finals sell out in hours.

And you have to be there and see it, because the moments are fleeting. Sport is a time bound opportunity; from the seconds where everything could change to the relatively short careers (perhaps a decade or so) in which the best athletes have the chance to grasp at immortality. To become legends, heroes, gods to some. 

Maybe people will worship AI-powered athletes in the same way that fictional characters (from Homer Simpson to Harry Potter) command legions of fans. However, I think they’ll always be something special about the human sports star, battling time and challenges, at the centre of their own extraordinary, unpredictable story. 

That said, and to close, the AI future of sport is undoubtedly exciting, and we need to grasp it as marketing professionals. To ignore it would be to fall behind the inevitability of progress – risking losing relevance with the consumers we seek to engage through their passions.

However, as we do so, we must co-currently keep our focus on the very thing audience love about sport – its utter humanity. This humanity, in all its glory and, sometimes, misery, will be an incredible tool in our marketing arsenal. One which we would do well to build the foundations of now.

As the world becomes increasingly non-human and our passions lean more and more into AI, human sport can be positioned as the ultimate ‘real’ experience. Fantastic and flawed people competing against one another, surrounded by cheering crowds of people standing shoulder to shoulder. A rare and vital thing in the AI world to come.