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MLS aims to reach “every kid playing soccer in North America” with Ai.io scouting tech

New programme will scout young players by using computer vision and AI.

4 May 2023 Ed Dixon

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  • AiScout app lets players complete drills via their mobile and be scouted for free
  • Programme will encourage more people to engage with MLS
  • League wants to apply AI tech across its wider business

Major League Soccer (MLS) has partnered with technology company Ai.io in a move the competition hopes will enable it to “identify and reach every kid playing soccer in North America”.

The agreement will help provide aspiring players with the chance to be scouted by MLS for free through the use of computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI).

Under the new virtual trial programme, players can download Ai.io’s AiScout product and complete a series of assessments and drills in any backyard, field or open space via their mobile phone. The app will analyse players’ ability and, through a fully connected platform, MLS will be able to evaluate players via the data generated.

Players who score highly will be offered a chance to train with MLS at events across the US and Canada.

Available in December 2023, clubs across MLS, as well as the MLS Next Pro and MLS Next development leagues, will have access to AiScout and the AiLabs analysis platform. From January 2024, AiScout will also be available to players across the globe.

MLS’ goal is for Ai.io’s technology to eliminate barriers such as cost, geography and time commitment that traditionally limit the accessibility of talent discovery programmes.

“We see it as the great chance to help identify and reach every kid playing soccer in North America,” Chris Schlosser, MLS’ senior vice president of emerging ventures, told SportsPro.

“We think it’s a tremendous addition to our youth efforts.”

“The whole MLS team bought in very early,” added Richard Felton-Thomas, chief operating officer and director of sports science at AiScout.

“I think democratising a process here is largely what this is about [and] get some data upfront for the scouts. Any player has the opportunity to say ‘look, I’m good enough and someone’s worth having a look at me’. Even from their garden they can now provide that data upfront. If the numbers are good enough, they’re going to get that opportunity. They can take some ownership of it.

“I think that certainly transcends across all of football. But it transcends across all of sport, particularly team sports. Every team sport has this problem not just football.”

Ai.io’s platform has already helped find players for Premier League giants Chelsea and newly-promoted Burnley. More broadly, Schlosser believes the technology will encourage extra people to engage with MLS.

“We’re looking to engage with anybody who likes the sport of soccer,” he said. “The new Apple partnership, which makes it really easy to watch all of our matches on any device around the world, is testament to that.

“We think these two things tie together and if kids start playing and are part of an MLS programme, then maybe they’ll want to watch a match.”

Schlosser added that MLS will continue to look to emerging technology, including AI, to help grow the league’s wider business, describing the programme with Ai.io as a “great initial use case”.

“We don’t want to just do technology to do technology,” he continued. “But we fundamentally believe at the core of our business that if we are on the cutting edge and using the best technology, we can help make the fan experience better, accelerate fan growth, create better play on the field.”

According to Schlosser, MLS has “the youngest fans in American pro sports by a longshot”. That contributed to the league’s decision to ink its ten-year, US$2.5 billion deal with Apple to show all matches globally via Apple TV+. The streaming tie-up forms one part of MLS’ wider mission to be at the forefront of emerging tech such as AI, 5G, Web 3.0 and the metaverse, which it plans to leverage through various projects and partnerships.

“We think we can apply the latest in AI technology across a whole host of different areas of our business,” explained Schlosser. 

“At the start of this year, we announced a partnership with Sportec, [which] we think is the best in the world at creating soccer data. We’ve installed all-new computer vision tracking systems in all of our MLS and Next Pro stadiums.

“They’re creating mountains of data from every match and we’re starting to utilise that across the enterprise, whether that’s for broadcast, fans, or for our coaching and scouting departments.”

As for London-based Ai.io, Felton-Thomas reveals the company has had a conversation with “most of the major leagues” and hopes that programmes like this become the norm. Soccer will be the initial focus but others sports are also on its radar for the future.

“You can have the early adopters and then you have the people that are going to follow that,” he said.

“The excitement for us is across football, get that nailed. But, absolutely, there’s going to be other sports involved in this.”

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