How we watch NCAA tournament is going to be transformed

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell03/23/22


Those of a certain age certainly remember when watching the NCAA tournament meant you were at the mercy of television executives. They’d stick your market with a game and – in the archaic era before broadcasts included on-screen scrolls of other scores – good luck finding out what was happening elsewhere without the rare look-in.

Today we have a smorgasbord of offerings. Ever since the CBS-Turner Sports marriage began in 2011, all 67 games have been broadcast nationally across four networks, often overlapping. This enables viewers to stay busy with the remote in one hand while holding a mobile device in the other to hate-tweet officials.

But if you think this second-screen experience offers the apex of viewing potential, think again. Buckle up because when you talk with experts who traffic in artificial intelligence, computer vision and data and analytics, the possibilities looming just on the horizon will be revolutionary. How we watch sports, and particularly the NCAA tournament, is about to undergo a radical transformation. Familiarize yourself with the term “Future Forecasting” and how machine learning can predict a highlight before it occurs. Get ready for an experience tailored to your viewing desires. 

“AI is the sugar in the coffee,” Dr. Patrick Lucey, chief scientist at Stats Perform, a sports tech leader in data, who oversees more than 40 AI scientists and engineers, told On3. Using data to enhance the viewing experience is among their central missions. In recent years, Lucey and his team have brought AI-powered solutions to market, including AutoSTATS, which uses computer vision to pull players’ tracking data directly from broadcasts. 

Echoing Lucey’s endorsement of AI’s potential is Christian Marko, Stats Perform’s chief innovation officer, who told On3: “I think we are, more or less, at the limit of what humans can actually do in terms of data collection.”

Personalized viewing experience the key

No sports property may offer a better canvas for technology to unlock viewing experience potential than the three-week NCAA men’s basketball tournament. With the sheer number of games (48 over the first four dizzying days) and the decades-old gambling element (from your prop-betting hustlers to bracket-pool grandmas), there is a wealth of opportunity. How you consume March Madness from the inexpensive confines of your couch is on the cusp of an AI-powered upgrade. 

Imagine a multi-layered experience that taps into real-time, in-game sports betting, e-commerce and social media-driven interactivity – and all of those aligning with one central, overarching theme: personalization. Using the viewing device of your choice, prepare to be empowered to choose everything from preferred camera angle to preferred game commentator (anyone from a social media influencer to, yes, Steve Lappas). Can’t catch a NCAA tournament game live? Prepare to choose how you want AI to curate your game highlight reel (only want to see 3-point shots?) and deliver it right to your inbox, ready to be shared on social platforms.

“I want to see the content most relevant to me,” Marko said. “I want to have personalized viewing experiences. Everything is going in that direction.”

But the Holy Grail is data. And it’s not just which metrics will be accessible – the wearable Whoop already offered fans real-time heart rate data of Patrick Mahomes as he went touchdown for touchdown with Josh Allen in the NFL playoffs – but also when advanced analytics will be accessible. In other words, right here, right now, in real time. Seeing this alluring horizon back in 2019, then-NBA commissioner David Stern said analytics would transform how sports are consumed far more than people realize. 

“Fans are going to have access to what combination [of players] was most effective in the first half, and the coach isn’t using that combination,” Stern, a tech visionary, told me. “And they are going to be getting it on their cell phones in the stands. Analytics is becoming much more important. It doesn’t replace the coach, but it’s a very strong augmentation.”

AI can answer ‘what if?’ questions

That leads us to Lucey, who along with Marko and Stats Perform senior data scientist Robert Seidl authored a research paper on Stats Perform-developed technology. It was selected as a finalist in this month’s competition at the prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

“Predicting the highlight before it happens,” Lucey said. “Can we identify that moment before it is played out? It’s informing the user by getting in front. Call it ‘Future Forecasting.’ ”

Take an important tennis match, for instance. Say the second set is tied at 4 and the score is 15-30. With Future Forecasting, the broadcast will immediately tell you that if the player wins that point, the likelihood of winning that set rises X percent and the likelihood of winning the match rises Y percent. They want to introduce real-time metrics that capture intangible elements such as momentum, clutch and leverage.

They want to transform data into predictive, descriptive and interactive metrics. In the end, it’s about turning data into insight. And it translates across sports. It’s about detecting actions in basketball, such as pick-and-rolls or ball screens, or coming up with quality metrics to quantify the likelihood of scoring in a certain position. With data as the foundation, they can ask and answer an endless array of “What if?” in-game questions. 

This fall, Stats Perform will roll out real-time, in-game final score predictions – not just predicting the game’s winner – in college football, a metric that adjusts as on-field action dictates. Lucey and Marko declined to disclose details, instead wanting to whet the appetites of fans.

“People ask me, ‘What’s the next big thing?’ ” Lucey said. The answer, he said, is offering data at scale and in real time. With AI as the driving force, we’re only starting to scratch the surface of how consuming March Madness will dramatically evolve. 

“That is a massive opportunity,” Lucey said. “It is very exciting what we’re doing, and we’re on that journey now.”