Enda McEvoy: Why not let the machines take charge of re-imagining Irish sports?

Quick task for the reader. Name five leading current male tennis players and five leading current female tennis players
Enda McEvoy: Why not let the machines take charge of re-imagining Irish sports?

THE FUTURE: An IBM technician poses with screens showing IBM's AI-generated highlights of play on the sixth day of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Lawn Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on July 6, 2019. Pic: GLYN KIRK, AFP

Quick task for the reader. Name five leading current male tennis players and five leading current female tennis players.

It is not a trick question. Ten current tennis players, five of each sex. Brostaigh! 

I’ll go first if you don’t mind. Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, Murray and, er… 

And females: Emma Raducanu, Coco Gauff, the Williams sisters - although 30 seconds on Google reveals that they haven’t been playing recently - and, er… (Again.) Huh. Not so simple, was it?

All of this is a roundabout way of alerting the reader to the news that Wimbledon have developed an app to enhance spectator enjoyment of next week’s tournament. Their motivation was the discovery that even their own customers haven’t a clue who most of the leading players in the game are – a challenge, the Guardian noted, faced by many sports when it comes to trying to court (no pun intended) a new audience.

No need to feel guilty, then, if you didn’t manage to name ten players a moment ago. You are far from being alone.

The explanation from Alexandra Willis, the All England Club’s director of communications and marketing, was illuminating. “We found that most fans didn’t watch tennis for the rest of the year,” she revealed. “They also hadn’t heard of most of the players. This was a specific barrier to engagement.” 

Rather than complain about the youth of today Wimbledon went and did something about it. They got IBM on the job. Now AI-powered stats will allow TV viewers as well as spectators in SW19 to learn more about the players, make their own predictions and, Willis put it, “help fans become more informed, engaged and involved throughout Wimbledon fortnight”. Leveraging technology is the term for it.

With AI – that’s the Artificial Intelligence one, not the Artificial Insemination one – back in the news of late, not least as Henry Kissinger has co-authored a book on the topic at the age of 99, an obvious question arises. 

In a century where technology can accomplish just about any task short of getting the Cork hurlers to defend properly, how can it be best leveraged in Irish sport?

Might sporting bodies here follow Wimbledon’s example in chasing a new audience? If so, how? Or would they be better off trying to hold on to what they have and consciously avoid jazzing up their offering?

To get the cheap gags out of the way first, Artificial Intelligence would come in handy at the FAI. (Okay, fair enough. The FAI are considerably less dysfunctional nowadays. But you have to score the two-yard tap-ins.) The GAA have already gone some distance towards leveraging technology by adopting Hawk-Eye. With lasers employed in so many walks of life at present, an interesting way of encouraging more attractive Gaelic football thus hoves within reach. Instead of aiming the laser at the uprights at either end, train it on the field and instantly zap every forward who strays into his own half with a giant beam overseen by some eagle-eyed, steel-nerved former US Special Forces sniper (in the movie he’d be played by one of the Wahlbergs) that renders the offender insensate for ten minutes.

Not only would this represent an infinitely more visceral and enjoyable version of the black card and sin bin for spectators, it would trigger an attacking revolution, transforming every match into a fiesta of flowing football that ended up 2-20 to 3-16. The Leinster championship might even become semi-bearable.

But let’s not be content with that. Could we go the whole hog and employ Artificial Intelligence, or merely superior marketing, to reboot teams and make them believe they are entirely different entities playing an entirely different sport?

The question is prompted by last Sunday’s Tailteann Cup semi-finals, two engaging encounters between teams who, astonishingly, went out to enjoy themselves by actually playing football as opposed to second-guessing themselves into strategic sterility. Now rebrand Ulster as the Tailteann Cup North - and lo!

Derry imagine they’re Liverpool. Down become Man U (Ferguson-era rather than Solskjaer/Rangnick-era). Armagh are, naturally, Holland. Watching Donegal is just like watching Brazil, kind of.

Suddenly there’s a weight off the teams’ shoulders. Suddenly there’s a weight off the spectators’ shoulders. Admittedly those stubborn sado-masochistic tactical types who get their perv on by watching slow-motion car crashes disguised as grimly compelling, absurdly overthought football matches will be bereft, but they’ll probably survive and in any case the price of modern professional counselling isn’t as expensive as it’s made out.

Then again, the Death of Gaelic Football is announced every six months, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves. And though the former Dublin footballer Philly McMahon recently announced he’s given up on the sport and is much more taken with hurling, adherents of the small-ball game are advised not to preen.

The Death of Hurling, or at any rate the imminence thereof, is touted a couple of times a decade every decade. We may have had an interesting Leinster championship and a cracking Munster final but fear not, the next doom-laden caravel cannot be long delayed.

Artificial Intelligence is doubtless tracking its progress as we speak.

The heat is on (in every sense)

Interesting looking lineup of venues for the World Cup finals, right?

Not the 2022 finals in Qatar, where the lineup of venues is anything but interesting. The Al Bayt Stadium; the Lusail Stadium; Doha’s Stadium 974, presumably named in honour of the monthly casualty rate of the migrant workers employed in its construction; the Stadio No Gay People.

No, we’re talking about the 2026 World Cup finals in the US, Mexico and Canada, where the list of host cities has been released to wild rejoicing in some places and much gnashing of teeth elsewhere. All manner of colourful vistas have now opened up for would-be visitors from Ireland.

Is Kansas City, a surprise choice, situated in Kansas, as Donald Trump believed, or Missouri? Can you see the precise spot in Philly where they blew up the Chicken Man last night? (They blew up his house too, sources in New Jersey claim.) And has that ridiculous hat Steve Staunton wore in Orlando in 1994 been preserved in some museum in the Railroad Depot in Church Street for future generations to giggle at?

The answer to that last question may never be known; Orlando didn’t make the cut this time. That’s probably good news for Irish folk, although the pre-tournament hoohah back in ‘94 about the supposedly unbearable heat of the city proved to be well wide of the mark. Giants Stadium was far more uncomfortable for the Italy match due to the humidity.

Also auspiciously for Irish folk, three venues on the east coast – Boston, Philadelphia and New York/New Jersey – will feature. Excellent news, at least up to a point.

The one small, tiny, microscopic, infinitesimal catch doesn’t need to be mentioned, does it? 

Even with 48 teams qualifying?

Heroes and Villains

Stairway to Heaven 

Hollie Doyle: Winner of the French Oaks on Nashwa for her first classic success. Next thing you’ll have a woman winning the Derby. Or, heaven help us, the Grand National.

Fabio Vieira: Big-money transfer from FC Porto but on the basis that he’ll never be the best member of his family to play for Arsenal he might ponder changing his name.

Hell in a Handcart 

The LIV Golf Series participants: Golfers are duplicitous, according to Rory McIlroy. “I’m surprised at a lot of these guys because they say one thing and then do another.” 

Romelu Lukaku: An index-linked list of the worst pound for pound purchases of all time would be fascinating. Even allowing for inflation Lukaku’s £97.5m move from Inter Milan to Chelsea will still figure highly.

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