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The NFL’s Artificial Intelligence Era Kicks Off

Last Updated: September 14, 2023
Boardroom exclusively spoke with Ian Trombetta, the league’s Senior VP of Social, Influencer, and Content Marketing about the growing relationship between the NFL and emerging tech.

While its general rules largely remain the same, it only takes a quick glance to understand that football doesn’t resemble the sport that first played organized contests in the late 1800s. Today, however, the NFL looks different than it did even a decade ago, particularly as it relates to how fans consume the game.

As technological advancements redefine what’s possible, all corners of the culture and entertainment economy are doing their best to stay at the top of trends while balancing the need to stay true to what drew us all to them in the first place. As the most profitable sports league on earth, the NFL is among the organizations making significant investments of late in emerging tech to find more ways to engage a truly global audience.

Notably, at this year’s NFL Draft in Kansas City, the league partnered with up-and-coming AI artist Adrian Curiel to create first-of-its-kind artificial intelligence-powered artwork for incoming rookies based around the new cities they call home.​​ As draftees graced the league’s new and immersive LED stage, they were photographed as part of a complex, AI-driven process.

The result was a series of bespoke art pieces that established a powerful visual connection from player to city to fans mere seconds after each athlete’s name was called.

“AI is my visual co-pilot, a tool that supercharges my creative thinking and helps me see outside the box,” Curiel said of the activation. “It is a unique medium because I can create shock value on a dime, but using AI to produce commercial work, you need to have your taste and style dialed in. It’s like taming a wild horse — full of boundless energy and potential, yet needing direction to achieve a result that fits the vibe.”

“What truly distinguishes AI for me is the depth it adds to my storytelling,” Curiel continued. “As a creative, I’m both an artist and a narrator. AI empowers me to blend these roles seamlessly, adding dimension to help shape the story I’m trying to tell. Sometimes, it feels like AI is as eager to bring my imagination to life as I am.”

In-house, the project was led by Ian Trombetta, the NFL’s Senior VP of Social, Influencer, and Content Marketing. He spoke to Boardroom about the opportunities of the NFL AI era, the story behind the decision to go big on emerging technology, and how the league intends to put it all together to maintain its prime positioning as a business and a content brand in the years to come.

VINCIANE NGOMSI: As we transition into a more digital-heavy society, what was the motivation when you were brainstorming how to bring AI technology to a sports audience?

IAN TROMBETTA: We see technology as really fundamental to what we do, both from a marketing perspective and just overall fan development. We think it’s really important that we continue to push, whether that’s on existing social platforms like Meta or X, Snapchat, etc. We always want to be kind of at the forefront of what’s happening from a technology perspective to help engage, especially younger fans.

With AI, there are just so many opportunities that are springing up everywhere and enabling us to deepen the storytelling, but also to reach more fans in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. The way that we’re really thinking about AI across our team is experiential learning. It offers a lot of advantages and we want to be really sensitive to the idea that we’re taking the learnings in and continuing to provide safeguards where we need to and not getting too far out over our skillset.

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VN: It’s unfair to call AI “trendy,” but for right now, it’s a seriously trending topic and has certainly piqued the interest of people across the country and globally. How do you determine the attention the league gives to something that risks the chances of being irrelevant in a matter of years?

IT: I think if you think about it, last year it seemed like everyone was talking metaverse. This year, it seems like AI has now taken over the sort of lexicon of what marketers especially are talking about. For us, we want to be present in this space that is emerging certainly, but we also have a very scaled operation. We can’t just turn the keys over and forget about the things that our fans are engaging with day-to-day. I have a gaming background, and that’s something I think we were rightfully cautious about in terms of some of the things that we were willing to do and not do.

I think a smart approach is that we’re going to test and learn and we’re going to continue to be clear about what we think are the opportunities, especially internally with our stakeholders here at the league. Hopefully, it’s something that our fans enjoy and we continue to expand over time.

VN: Do you credit your gaming background to helping you better understand AI, the metaverse, etc.?

IT: I think it helps expose you to things that really enable this idea of testing quickly and driving storytelling through emerging platforms and not being afraid to take some calculated risks — and gaming really is about that. You have to move forward, you have to progress the game year over year, and the storytelling has got to be attached to that. I think it does a couple of things in that you’re becoming comfortable with technology and the way consumers are maybe interacting with your content in different ways. Two, it’s also deepening the character storytelling in many cases, and the same thing here with our helmets-off strategy. We’re really trying to find new ways to communicate not just who the players are on the field, but particularly off the field.

VN: Regarding everything the NFL has accomplished in the AI space so far, how has the feedback been?

IT: Honestly, it’s been super positive. I mean, our future is so bright here at the NFL. What’s been really nice to see is just the way fans of all demographics are responding to the game. It’s moving in the right direction. We’re getting younger, we’re getting more diverse, [and] we’re also maintaining some of our older fans as well.

If you think about the opportunities for us to now grow the game with flag football and communicate with young girls, especially to have them now participating in the game in ways they hadn’t before and also internationally, there’s a tremendous opportunity. I would say it’s really exciting to be with a very well-established league, but we’re certainly not complacent, and we see opportunity everywhere in terms of ways in which we can grow the game and connect it to communities.

VN: In the five years you’ve been with the league, what has been the most rewarding part of implementing these AI and emerging tech efforts?

IT: I couldn’t imagine a better scenario for me being able to work in sports and at the NFL. That alone is a dream job, but I think going beyond that, it’s working across content marketing. From advertising to our digital products to some of our NFL Network shows, to getting into social media where we’ve got millions of fans who are clamoring for the next piece of news. It really goes back to benefiting the fans, bringing communities together, and building excitement for the game that we all love. It’s super exciting given the impact that football has, particularly in this country.

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About The Author
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi
Vinciane Ngomsi is a Staff Writer at Boardroom. She began her career in sports journalism with bylines at SB Nation, USA Today, and most recently Yahoo. She received a bachelor's degree in Political Science from Truman State University, and when she's not watching old clips of Serena Williams' best matches, she is likely perfecting her signature chocolate chip cookie recipe or preparing a traditional Cameroonian meal.