The NFL is currently testing how to best utilize AI technology, per Sports Business Journal (SBJ).

The league is exploring whether AI can supplement or even replace first-down chains and human officiating decisions. NFL Chief Football Administrative Officer Dawn Aponte said they are also considering other applications of AI in the sport.

“Line to gain is probably the one that we’re closest to implementing,” Aponte told SBJ, “and the way that we test it is that we have all the actual data that will then support what we’re getting from the optical tracking data that’s being brought in.”

AI has been involved in sports for a long time, starting with tennis in the mid-2000s when the Hawk-Eye system was introduced, per Scientific American.

The trend of employing AI for difficult decisions has gradually been expanding to other sports, including soccer with Video Assistant Referee (VAR), and more recently, with Hawk-Eye in the NFL and NBA.

According to Scientific American, the NBA has experienced some bumps in the road when it comes to using this technology, such as errors when making calls.

“All new technologies present both opportunities and challenges, and some early bumps in the road with the Hawk-Eye rollout do not diminish what we see as enormous upside to the system,” an NBA spokesperson told Scientific American. “We remain confident in the technology’s ability to improve not only the speed and accuracy of officiating decisions but also revolutionize the way fans experience our game.”

Why sports are turning to AI to referee

AI’s popularity in sports stems from its ability to make accurate and fair calls. Hawk-Eye enhances accuracy by using motion capture and computer algorithms, with cameras that track the ball at 340 frames per second, according to CNBC.

Ben Figueiredo, the director of tennis at Hawk-Eye Innovations, told CNBC that the system’s accuracy is within a millimeter.

The Hawk-Eye system was invented in 1999 and was first used in cricket, per CNBC. It debuted in tennis in 2003, but only for broadcasting purposes. However, its role in the sport increased in 2004 following a controversial match between Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati.

During that match, Williams lost a crucial point when a ball she hit was incorrectly judged out of bounds by the chair umpire, leading to Capriati’s victory.

Capriati later lost to Elena Dementieva in the semifinals, attributing her defeat to doubts stemming from the Williams match, according to USTA.

“Every time I would turn on the TV, I just started to question even myself. It was difficult. It was like, ‘Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault?’” she said.

After the match, Williams received an apology, the umpire was dismissed and this incident prompted wider use of Hawk-Eye.

“The reason Hawk-Eye became a thing was because they were calling my balls out,” Williams said on Spotify’s “Archetypes” podcast, per CNBC. “Every time I hit a ball, they would call it out. No matter how close it was or how far it was.”

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawk-Eye’s use expanded further due to the need for social distancing, eliminating the need for line judges and instead relied solely on the technology.

Concerns over AI-refereeing

While AI technology in sports has been largely welcomed, some concerns have been raised.

One issue, according to USA Today, is that it takes away too much time from the game.

Soccer fans, for example, argue that when referees have to refer to a system before confirming a call, it disrupts the pace of the game, making it less enjoyable.

Additionally, with how accurate AI can be, it penalizes every minor infraction, like being an inch offside, further throwing off the flow of the game.

Paul Hawkins, Hawk-Eye founder and developer of the AI system used in soccer, VAR, told The Times that VAR is the sporting innovation he is “least proud” of because it detracts from soccer’s fun.

In order to prevent AI from detracting from the game, some have suggested that it only be consulted when a call is challenged.

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“You could have a challenge system which did not include black-and-white decisions such as offside,” Hawkins said. “Most of the time, teams know whether there was an infringement or not. You could perhaps even have an extra challenge in matches such as the Champions League final or World Cup final.”

Another concern is whether AI will entirely replace referees.

“Computer vision will be more and more effective in the next few years and the number of cameras on the pitch will only increase,” Aldo Comi, chief executive of global football analytics provider Soccerment, told the PA news agency, per Independent.

He added, “Ultimately in a matter of 20 or 30 years probably the referee will be just an AI. I am not saying this is positive, I’m just saying it is likely to happen.”

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