AI In Sports: A Game-Changer For Athletes, Teams, And Fans Alike

Artificial Intelligence: it’s the biggest buzz phrase on the internet these days, one that’s nearly impossible for people to avoid. 

A quick google search reveals millions of hits ranging from think pieces on how AI can impact people’s lives—for better or worse—to the myriad applications that the developing field of technology can have on the modern world. 

One such example of a potential application of AI is the world of sports. Coaches, management and staff members are always looking for advantages they can give their team, whether it’s a little league baseball team finding a new drill to practice or a college coach finding a hole in the other team’s game plan. 

When it comes to professional franchises that have billion dollar budgets and dozens of supporting staff members working to help the team succeed, the sporting arms race becomes even more dramatic. 

Here’s a look at how artificial intelligence can play a role in athletic success.

Artificial Intelligence Applications: How the Phoenix Suns are using the technology

One of the most common real world uses of AI technology is for motion capture: recording how someone moves and then creating a digital representation of it to enable further examination. 

Motion capture is also one of the technologies most applicable for sports. Body control is critical to what athletes do, and artificial intelligence provides a way to harness that data.

Arizona’s own Phoenix Suns were one of the first NBA teams to commit to using motion capture technology. They also took one of the most extreme approaches to doing so, shelling out $45 million for their Verizon 5G Performance Center that, among other things, uses motion capture to quantify athletic performance. 

The Suns have been one of the best teams in basketball in the past three years: they made the NBA Finals in 2021, had an NBA best 64-18 record in 2022 and have the second best odds of winning it all in 2023, listed at +450 at Arizona’s BetMGM Sportsbook

The Performance Center opened in late 2020: perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Suns have gone from a perennial bottom feeder to a bona fide championship contender in that time. 

A 2020 article by Forbes took readers on a tour of the Suns’ facility, showing just how comprehensive AI technology can be.

By recording every second of practices, both individual drills and five on five gameplay, the Suns are able to isolate how players perform in nearly every situation. 

They can see how a player behaves when they get tired, how it impacts their movement, what warning signs to look for when trying to decide if they should sub a player out of the game. They can track how players react to and return from injuries, tinker with shot form and jumping mechanics.

Of course, AI technology means nothing without actual human brain power there to operate it: motion capture acquires the data, but it’s the human interpretation of data that allows the Suns to figure out how to put their players in the best possible scenarios for success.

Even more exciting, these examples could be just the tip of the artificial intelligence iceberg: the Suns likely don’t want to reveal all of their trade secrets and help other teams close the gap, and the technology could continue to develop and improve. 

What’s more, fundamentals of AI technology like motion capture can apply to all sports, not just basketball. Baseball players can use it to track the way they barrel up a curveball or how the spin changes as they release a slider. Hockey players can gather data on the way they shoot the puck or adjust to make a save, and football players can track how body positioning, weight distribution and technique can help them gain leverage in the trenches.