The National Football League is a professional sports organization known for its meticulous, hands-on approach to everything—how the league contracts with TV networks, how teams draft their players and how those players should act on and off the field, how licensing deals are signed, and how rules are enforced on the playing field.
The NFL doesn't leave a lot to chance.
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The same was true with how NFL executives created the schedule for its teams every year: It was all done by hand, starting the day after the Super Bowl, with a peg board and little tags. "The process was kind of secretive," says Michael North, the NFL's director of broadcast planning and scheduling, who's been with the league for 15 years. "We would go into the room, lock the door and emerge 10 weeks later: 'Here's your schedule. Play it.'"
That all changed several years ago, when the NFL realized it could use technology to automate the process—making it more efficient and its schedules better—and a Canadian manufacturing engineer named Rick Stone came knocking on the NFL's door.
Stone, who had done sports scheduling for several minor hockey leagues in Canada, got his shot at the big time when the NFL was building its 2004 schedule. Stone and his optimization software scored. "It's pretty hard to compare a couple of guys in a room trying to put this jigsaw puzzle together to what a computer could do," Stone says. "It's not really a fair fight."
North and the NFL brass have been duly impressed. "If you're building the schedule by hand, you box yourself in real quickly and you start making compromises," says North. "More than anything, Rick has developed a tool to prioritize, in any given season, certain factors and constraints that lets us figure out which of these schedules are delivering as close to optimal as we can get."
On Any Given Sunday, or Monday, or Thursday...
To the average football fan, the task of creating each season's schedule might not seem that complex. (The 2008 season started on Sept. 4.) After all, there is a fixed system and planned rotation in place that, come the day after the Super Bowl each year, lets each of the 32 teams know who their opponents are going to be next season. Therefore, it's just a matter of determining when those 256 NFL games will occur. (To read about the security of quarterback-to-coach communications at NFL games, see "How Secure Is All That Wireless Equipment at the Super Bowl?")
But just as the league's prominence has risen to the top of the American sports scene, so too has the number complicating factors that can affect the schedule and the teams playing the games. In addition to television networks (including the NFL's own cable network) that are spending billions on broadcasting rights and want the very best matchups, all of the teams want to avoid schedules with horrific travel arrangements. And then there's the demanding, ticket-paying fan base who want to see only the best games and teams come to town.
"So we've got to figure out how to put that 256-game jigsaw puzzle together in a way that's competitively fair to the 32 clubs," says North.
Here are just a handful of the factors that have to be considered: whether teams should play on Thursday, Sunday or Monday nights, or as part of Sunday doubleheaders or on certain Saturdays; how best to avoid three-game road trips for teams or road games after road Monday night games; watching out for consecutive seasons where teams get the earliest possible bye week; determining who certain teams play first and last; which games warrant prime-time TV exposure during sweeps weeks; which teams should play on the national TV schedule and which teams shouldn't; which teams play in "specialty games," like on Thanksgiving day or on other holidays; and climate issues, such as which teams go to Miami in the early part of the season and Green Bay, Wis., late in the season.
"Any factor you can think of has to be factored into this decision," North says.