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How AI Is Keeping 49ers Fans in the Game

Photos: Courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the most exciting technological innovations of the modern age. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that whenever a company announces they’re using AI, the news just about guarantees a headline.

Because of AI’s potential to improve business, the hype may be worthy in some cases. But AI is also novel, and not every business may be prepared to incorporate it into their strategy, says Moon Javaid, the head of strategy and analytics for the San Francisco 49ers.

When AI might make sense for a business

The 49ers are one of first teams in the NFL to employ AI, Javaid says, but it wasn’t done just to generate media buzz. Instead, the 49ers added the technology, supplied by the company Satisfi Labs, to help their customers.

For at least 10 games a year, the team needs to employ an extra 3,000 workers to address customer questions, like where to find a hot dog, bathroom or ATM within the stadium.

Fans can also use a virtual assistant and chatbot to get immediate answers on their phones. “Customers want is a timely answer. They don’t necessarily care if they have a dedicated [representative],” Javid says. “Our goal is to get people timely issue resolution, and if our virtual assistant is successful, that would be our best-use case for why and where AI makes sense.”

Preparing for AI

Not every company has the data and infrastructure to successfully implement AI into their business strategy, Javaid says. “The majority of sports teams don’t have the infrastructure in place from a technology perspective, nor do they have the bandwidth to analyze it and assess it in a smart fashion,” he says, adding that will change in the next few years.

One of the first steps the team took was gathering fan data, such as purchase and demographic information. Javaid says that other teams don’t have that capability just yet, but should get them soon.

AI doesn’t make sense for everything, however. “I would not push for AI just to generate a headline or get a buzz because we have a ton of priorities and limited bandwidth,” Javaid says. “I want to focus on the changes that will affect the masses — so the changes that will affect 60,000 fans, not a couple hundred fans. I like to focus on areas that can generate a good return on investment for us.”

With AI advancing at the speed of light, there’s no definitive answer as to what’s next for the team. 

“Think about the first iPhone. Think about the first Tesla. Think about the first iteration of anything,” Javaid says. “If I talk to you five years from now on AI, my opinion might be different because of the advances that have been made.”

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