April 23, 2019
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AKQA says it used AI to invent a new sport called Speedgate

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At TechCrunch, we write about AI all the time, whether the technology is being used to write books, make films or create a better McDonald’s drive-thru. But we here’s one we haven’t heard before: Using AI to invent a new sport.

The sport in question is Speedgate, and it was developed by AKQA. Creative Director Whitney Jenkins explained that the digital agency wanted to do something “really ambitious” for Portland Design Week, and given the team’s work with Nike (and its general “love of sports or athleticism”), it made sense to ask: “What if we invented the next basketball, the next football?”

To do that, AKQA says it used an existing recurrent neural network architecture, feeding it data about 400 sports, which were then used to generate sports concepts and rules.

Many of those ideas, Jenkins said, were simply not feasible. The AI was good at coming up with descriptions for sports like “underwater parkour,” an exploding frisbee game and one where players pass a ball back-and-forth while in hot air balloons and on a tightrope. But it took a back-and-forth process with the human team at AKQA to narrow the list down to the final three for playtesting, and then to refine the rules into something people might actually want to play.

“We know we can’t dangle 30 feet in the air, we understand the confines of what makes sense as a sport,” Jenkins said. Still, he insisted that Speedgate could never have been created by humans alone: “Using AI as a member of a creative team takes us to a new place, that we never could have gotten to without it.”

Speedgate logo

In addition to generating ideas and rules, AKQA also used AI to generate different logos for the sport. The agency’s AI Lead Kathryn Webb said they fed more than 10,400 sports logos into a deep convolutional generative adversarial network, getting 6,400 possible logos back.

“A team looked through those and took a lot of inspiration from them in terms of the shape of the logo and the color scheme,” Webb said. “It’s a nice example of going beyond the very text-focused stuff that you see quite a lot of.”

And going back to text, AI was even responsible for the sport’s motto, which has apparently been embraced by the initial players: “Face the ball to be the ball to be above the ball.”

The result of all that work is a sport where teams of six play on a field with large gates, passing and kicking the ball through the gates (but avoiding the center gate) to score. Jenkins said that while Speedgate isn’t meant to be derivative of any particular sport, “If I was talking to my buddy walking down the street, I would say that we used AI to create a new sport that pulls the best of rugby, soccer, ultimate frisbee and croquet.”

AKQA will be demonstrating and discussing Speedgate at an event in Portland at 6pm tonight. Jenkins said the team has hopes for Speedgate beyond Design Week, including discussions with the Oregon Sports Authority and a possible intramural league this summer.

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The Super Bowl gets voice-enabled

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Amazon, Dish, Comcast and others are hoping to turn Super Bowl 2019 into a way to show off the potential for their voice technologies and TV integrations. The companies this week have been touting new features and a variety of voice commands that will allow viewers to get prepared for the big game, learn about players and teams, tune into NFL news and highlights, set their recordings and more.

In some cases, this may be as simple as asking your TV to tune to the Super Bowl, record the event or get more information about the game, as is the case with Dish. Customers can press the button on their Dish voice remote, then say “Super Bowl” or “Super Bowl 53” to watch, find information or record the game, the company says.

Comcast and Amazon are taking things further, however.

Comcast’s Xfinity X1 customers can now use their voice remote to get the latest stats, get pre-game news and post-game highlights or even turn on an app that tracks real-time stats on the screen during the big game.

For example, X1 customers can say “Tom Brady vs. Jared Goff,” “The Patriots vs. the Rams,” “Show me Julian Edelman,” “Show me Rams leaders” and other sorts of commands to get stats on teams or to learn about the players. They also can say “Super Bowl” or “NFL” to be taken to news and highlights, or say “X1 Sports app” to launch the stat-tracking feature on their TV screen.

Smart home users with Xfinity Home can even turn their lighting to their favorite team’s colors by saying”Xfinity Home, go Patriots!” or “go Rams!,” as desired.

Alexa’s Super Bowl feature set is more robust, offering the ability to ask for trivia and quizzes, background on the players and teams, stats, jokes and burns, track the odds, get historical data and more.

These sorts of questions can range from the basic — like, “where is the Super Bowl this year?” — to the more complex, like “what is the Patriots yards per carry this season?” or “how many times has Tom Brady been to the Super Bowl?”

You can also ask Alexa for a Super Bowl quiz, fact or past game recaps, in addition to more informational questions. Alexa can give you football jokes and “burns,” too.

What was surprising was that some of the stat-related questions Alexa could answer herself weren’t answered on Google Home, when asked the same way — for example, the above yards per carry question, and number of Super Bowls that Tom Brady has been to.

Both Alexa and Google Assistant will give you their own opinion on who they want to win, however. Google says it’s cheering for the underdog, the Rams. Alexa says as much as she wants to cheer for the Rams, she thinks the Patriots will win.

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Twitter and NBA game streaming deal is about connecting with cord-cutters and younger fans

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Twitter is already working with the NBA to stream video of pre-game warm-ups, in-game and post-game highlights and post-game behind-the-scenes content. Now, the company will for the first time ever stream live NBA action — with a twist. In partnership with the NBA, Twitter will introduce an alternate camera angle view during the second half of the live game, one that’s focused on a single player.

That’s right: NBA fans on Twitter won’t get to hear commentary, or watch the full game — the stream will only go live in the second half.

And they’re not watching the full game action — the stream will be focused on a single player in an isolated camera view.

That may sound like those watching Twitter are getting short-changed, but that is not the full story, according to Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA who spoke about the deal today onstage at CES in Las Vegas alongside Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

A key goal with this deal is to make the experience less like tuning into a live sporting event and more like a social activity, tapping into more platforms where younger users are spending time in a moment where, by many accounts, traditional TV is dying.

“There are a lot of people out there who may not be accessing our games,” said Silver.

“Many of them don’t subscribe to cable TV and that is the transition,” he added. The deal, he said, aims at “cord cutters who aren’t subscribing to pay TV… but still consume massive amounts of NBA content. This gives them the opportunity to see live video” in another place, in complement to the other places such as live streams online. “The best position we can be in is to say here is our content, go at it.”

Dorsey highlighted how basketball was a fitting first-go for this kind of sports content on Twitter, given some of Twitter’s own DNA.

`The NBA fits so well because of the quick pace and how fast things can change,” he said. “The real-time aspect has been a core to almost everything we do.”

There will also be, of course, a social element to how the content is utilized.

The NBA will hold a vote on Twitter to ask fans which player the camera will focus on during the second half.

The way this will work is that fans will be given choices of players for the camera to follow in the second half. They’ll have through halftime to place their votes.

And then, while the camera follows the player during the second half, there will be additional NBA commentary from talent who will provide Twitter commentary.

“Twitter conversation has always been a complement to live action on TV. This groundbreaking partnership makes that complementary experience even richer, bringing additional views fans want to see, and the conversation around the game all together in one place,” said Laura Froelich, senior director, head of U.S. Content Partnerships at Twitter, speaking at CES.

It sounds like this could be laying the groundwork for how Twitter might potentially offer a credible alternative to broadcasting a full game of basketball, or other sports, for that matter. At a time when getting full-game streaming (not broadcast) rights comes with a multi-billion-dollar price tag, any way that Twitter can find to bypass that but still capture some of that audience, while helping sports organizations figure out how to grow their own audiences, is worth exploring.

Twitter will license the streams from the NBA and Turner, which holds the rights to the full, live games. It’s not disclosing the price it’s paying to do this, but it will try to recoup and profit on whatever the value is: Twitter will also attempt to sell advertising around them, on a revenue-share basis with the organizations.

The deal makes Twitter the first social platform to live-stream games in the U.S. — even if it’s only the second half.

“For us, [Twitter has been] an amazing innovation partner. And I also think, just given the fact that it’s such a real-time platform, it’s where the crux of all our conversations are happening. It just makes too much sense,” said Sam Farber, VP, Digital Media at the NBA.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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The tactics behind The Athletic’s breakout success in sports subscriptions

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Local newspapers may be shuttering and people may be consuming most news on social media, but don’t tell Alex Mather that a subscription news publication can’t grow like a unicorn startup. His 2-year-old sports publisher The Athletic has gained over 100,000 paid subscribers (60% under age 34) and has a 90% retention rate.

Having already raised $30 million in its short life, the company announced a new $40 million Series C yesterday, led by Founders Fund and Bedrock Capital. It reportedly values The Athletic around $200 million.

I interviewed Alex Mather (The Athletic’s CEO) and Eric Stomberg (Partner at Bedrock Capital) to understand what’s behind the breakout success and why they think this publishing startup can scale to become a multi-billion dollar company.

EP: Bedrock makes concentrated, contrarian bets. Explain how The Athletic fits that.

ES: I first met Alex and Adam in 2016 during Y Combinator. The popular view then, as it remains now, was that people just aren’t willing to pay for content online and that to win in media you have to put out a high volume of free articles on social.

The Athletic took the opposite approach. It’s a narrative violation. Everything is part of a paid subscription, with the belief that instead of writers needing to post 3-4 pieces per day, they should focus on deeper stories that add value to paid subscribers over time. That worldview resonated with us. If you can create content at scale that people are willing to pay for, that’s a powerful economic engine.

There’s so much sports coverage already out there, by professionals and amateurs alike, so why are people willing to pay for The Athletic?

AM: While there appears to be an abundance of content, most of it is aggregated, shallow content for a broad audience. We produce fewer stories and target a diehard fan. Our subscribers consistently tell us that no one else produces the same depth on a daily basis.

How did you determine the $60/year price point?

AM: We think of $60/year ($5/month) as less than the average NBA ticket. It’s a meaningful price but not prohibitive, especially when we do discounts in the first year. Like all subscription companies, whether we like it or not, we have to consider how our pricing stacks up against Netflix. For $10/month, you can subscribe to Netflix which is spending $8 billion per year in content.

Is The Athletic profitable?

AM: We expand by launching in local markets. We are in 47 thus far. The operational focus is on building a local team and becoming profitable in each local market. I can tell you that most markets are profitable in the first year–currently all of our markets over one year old are profitable and most of those over 6 months old are profitable.

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Explain your growth strategy in terms of coverage: which sports did you start with and at which level (local vs national)?

AM: Direct-to-consumer businesses have to work really to earn their subscribers’ hard-earned money. We have to obsess over where we can be different. In the beginning, that was with hockey and baseball, because those have been de-prioritized by the bigger players. That shifted as we gained more subscribers: we needed to become comprehensive. We hired folks to cover the NBA, to cover the NFL, to cover soccer.

Do subscribers usually come just for one local sport or for the broader bundle?

AM: We’ve built a powerful bundle. A local newspaper has local politics, local restaurants, and then local sports. We have just the sports, but add a national perspective and a nationwide bundle. Most of our subscribers are “super bundlers,” meaning they subscribe to content from multiple cities plus at least one national product and usually a college product that’s not local. We provide all that for significantly less than competitors.

Eric — as a VC looking for multi-billion dollar exits, how are you analyzing the potential scale of a subscription publication like this? Even most people who are bullish on subscriptions believe it’s a choice of going for a niche audience and staying small.

ES: There are two things we look for in a subscription business: retention and a positive flywheel.

Retention. In any subscription business, the key question is: can they maintain their subscribers over time? Most of them don’t. Spotify does, Netflix does, and The Athletic does as well. The Athletic is off the charts, which sets it up for scale. You want to see deep engagement over a very, very long period of time — years.

A positive flywheel. The more you build your subscriber base, the more you build your revenue base. That allows you to get better content, to hire unique writers, to build greater depth. In doing so, you attract people who weren’t ready to subscribe in the early days but now you have writers they follow and content they want. Technology is important here too: as you build a bigger platform with more content, serving the right content at the right time to each user is a key advantage. When this flywheel is working it’s actually quite hard to put a ceiling on the business.

Most publishers did a so-called “pivot to video” over the last couple of years. You’re anchored in writing. Why not more video at the start?

AM: We’re obsessed with the consumer and all our research in the beginning said that people still like to read books and articles. Advertising with text may not be as good as with video, which may be why so many other companies “pivoted to video,” but we think the written word is still the best way to convey certain types of stories. It’s straightforward, it doesn’t require headphones.

There’s an incredible amount of talent out there that can produce these stories and that has been cast aside by many entities. We saw it as an opportunity to give them great jobs and bring value to our subscribers. That has paid off for us.


What are your plans for video or other content formats in the future?

AM: We raised this Series C with audio and video in mind. We can tell even more stories when we add in audio and video possibilities. Our goal is to serve the subscriber: some love to read, some love to listen, others prefer to watch. We look up to things like The Ringer, Andre the Giant on HBO, VICE News, Gimlet, and The Daily by the New York Times all as incredible storytelling, and we ask ourselves “how can we do sports versions of those?”.

Why focus on hiring experienced, full-time writers rather than a stable of contributors or curating from the vast pool of content by fans? Lots of amateurs pay close attention to sports.

AM: What’s really important to us is a growth mentality — that by Day 100 on our team a writer is thinking very differently. We’re providing lots of data, lots of feedback. We invest in great people who will figure this out with us over time. Also, scaling so quickly from 0 to 300 editorial staff was possible because we recruited experienced talent who know what to do already.

We do have about 400 contributors as well. These are folks who may be lawyers or accountants but are passionate about the teams they cover. We are a way for them to reach a premium audience. We can pay them really well and give them world-class editors formerly with Sports Illustrated and ESPN.

How are you acquiring your subscribers?

AM: When we expand into a new market, we gain new subscribers by hiring writers who have a following already and by word of mouth from existing subscribers. Then like any direct-to-consumer brand, we are acquiring subscribers through Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

You financially incentivize your writers based on them acquiring new subscribers through their articles or by promoting The Athletic with their followers online. That is very uncommon in publishing. Explain that strategy.

AM: It ties back to our focus on building for the long term and investing in talent that will grow with us. We like to assign incentives that give us the best chance of building a sustainable business and we think about compensation in that way. We give our team equity in the company and for many, we tie a portion of their comp to the performance of their team, sport, city. It’s a great way to share in the responsibility and success of the business.

At the bottom of articles, you ask readers to rate each story as “Meh”, “Solid”, or “Awesome”. I wish every publisher did this. How do you use this data? How do a writer’s scores impact them?

AM: It’s about feedback loops. Our writers gauge feedback when they share on Twitter. This is another data point. It helps paint a more complete picture. NPS alone isn’t enough of course though. We look at whether articles drive new subscribers, drive deep engagement, drive comments, etc. We don’t use pageviews, but we certainly use metrics. Usually, this results in a writer producing very different work on Day 100 than they were on Day 0.

Explain the interaction between subscribers. It’s not unique to have a comments section: there are bad comments sections, good comments sections, and comments sections that go unused. At a tactical level, how do you think about building community?

AM: My co-founder and I met at Strava, the social network for endurance athletes. I ran the product team and we were obsessed with community. We see an incredible connection between community engagement and subscriber retention. The question that drives us is how can we connect users in an authentic way, how can we connect users to our staff in an authentic way, how can we connect users to athletes in an authentic way. We’re doing a lot of experimentation here. We have a distinct opportunity because of our paywall: most of the comments on The Athletic are saying substantive things.

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SoftBank leads $35M investment in sports engagement startup Heed

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Heed, a startup looking to create new ways for sports leagues and clubs to engage with fans, is announcing that it has raised $35 million led by SoftBank Group International.

As laid out for me by CEO Danna Rabin, the company sits at the intersection of sports and IoT — which makes sense, since it was founded by Internet of Things company AGT International and talent agency Endeavor .

“Our primary mission is to connect the young audience with sports leagues and clubs,” Rabin said. “[Those] audiences are consuming less broadcast TV, consuming less of anything linearly. Sports clubs and brands are having more and more issues connecting with and reengaging those younger audiences.”

To create that connection, Heed places sensors around the match or game venue, even potentially on players’ clothing and equipment.

For example, the team let me make a couple punches using gloves with sensors inside, which were created for the mixed martial arts league UFC. Afterwards, I could see the measured force of each of my swings. (I didn’t really have any points of comparison, but I think it’s safe to say that my numbers weren’t too impressive.)

Rabin emphasized that Heed’s real focus isn’t on building fancy hardware, but rather on the artificial intelligence it uses to take that data (which can also be drawn from video and audio footage of the match) and transform it into a general narrative that can be viewed on the Heed smartphone app.

Pointing to the UFC glove, Rabin said, “We extract, only from this sensor, 70 different data points. What’s happening is, the fusion of these data points is what creates the stories.”

Put another way, the goal is to replace the generic commentary that you often get in sports coverage and live games with unique details about how the game or match is unfolding. Those aren’t just numbers like how hard someone is punching, but also inferences about a player’s emotional state based on the data.

“One of our core promises is that it’s not editorial driven,” Rabin added. “The AI is selecting what’s interesting in a match. Of course, we have a creative team that designs the formats, the visuals, how the packaging should look like, but that’s incorporated into the technology, which is automatically selecting the moments and creating the experiences with no human interpretation.”

So does Heed aim to be a technology provider or a sports media company of its own? Well, Rabin said it didn’t make sense to simply provide the tech to individual leagues or teams.

“A specific club does not have the breadth of technologies to keep evolving,” she said. Plus, she argued that the audience isn’t looking for just a one-off site with stories about one team, but an all-around destination where they can “get a bit of everything.”

In addition to the UFC, Heed is also working with EuroLeague (the European basketball league), various soccer clubs and Professional Bull Riding. In the latter case, it’s not just creating content, but actually working with the organization to create a more automated and objective form of judging.

“By leveraging AI and IoT, HEED has developed a unique platform that is changing the way fans watch and interact with sports,” said Softbank President and CFO Alok Sama. “HEED is taking a traditionally static experience and providing fans with deeper insights into the physical and emotional aspects of the sporting event by gathering and analyzing large, complex data in real time.”

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