NFL Schedule, Rivalries and Potential TV Ratings Optimized by Packaged Software

The NFL's 2008 season has kicked off, and specialized optimization software helped league execs wade through thousands of scheduling variables to come up with the best lineup for teams, TV networks and fans.

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There are even things outside the NFL's control that have to be considered when making the schedules, like the likelihood of hurricanes and other sports teams' schedules. For example, North says 11 NFL teams share stadiums or downtown geographic areas with major league baseball teams (the football season overlaps with the baseball season, and then there's the playoffs and World Series to contend with). "So you have to work around all those teams in September," North says, "and you need to be able to adapt to post-season conflicts that arise."

There are, in fact, some 6,000 of these factors that the NFL prefers to have included in the creation of the 256-game schedule, Stone says. So, just how complex is process? "Say you're going to buy a lottery ticket, and you're trying to pick six numbers out of 50," Stone says. "That's like 15 million combinations, or something like that. So if picking six out of 50 is so difficult, imagine the number of combinations of picking 256 out of 6,000. It's astronomical."

What's most amazing, in retrospect, is that the NFL, with around $7 billion in annual revenues, had been able to do this by hand for so long and still come up with a pretty fair schedule.

"Frankly, it's staggering that the National Football League, a multibillion-dollar company, was taking arguably its most important asset—the schedule—and building it by hand only about 10 years ago," North says. "It's remarkable to think where we were not that long ago."

Cold Calling the NFL

Rick Stone, a manufacturing and industrial engineer based in British Columbia, was still working his scheduling job when he launched a fledgling software scheduling business for professional sports, called Optimal Planning Solutions. "It's the exact same technology just applied to a different field," he says. At a high level, Stone says that his software creates a mathematical model that incorporates all the various scheduling constraints, rules or requests—as in "like to have" or "must have"—and then it uses a commercial scheduling application to solve the mathematical model. Thus, an optimal schedule is created.

So, as Stone tells it, he cold called the NFL at its stately Park Avenue offices in New York City. "I was already doing sports scheduling for probably about 10 leagues at the time around the world, mostly minor league hockey and lower-tier leagues," Stone says. "And I basically called them out of the blue and said 'Hey, this is who we are and would you be interested in our software?'" (The "we" was actually "he," as Optimal Solutions was a one-man operation at the time; it's up to two people now.)

North recalls Stone's phone call and that Stone had done work for the National Rugby League of Australia, "which happens to be structured a lot like the NFL," North says. "Everybody plays one game a week, you play division opponents home and away, and there's one key game a week." The NFL had initially put out an RFP looking for a technology partner in 2001. "We talked to everybody we could think of—public and private, to Carnegie Mellon and MIT to NASA," North says. "We talked to other professional sports schedulers that were making schedules for the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL."

The NFL had selected another company's scheduling software, which it used for the 2002 and 2003 schedules. But there was something about Stone's software. North says Stone worked in a "on spec" role in 2003. "We started slowly with Rick, and he worked in parallel with us in a pilot," North says. "OK, guy in your basement in Vancouver, you can take a shot over there on your own time. In the meantime, we're going to keep doing it the way we were doing it until you prove to us that you've got a tool that can do it better."

The result? "Very, very quickly he was able to prove to us that his software was very capable," North says.

Stone says the schedule his software came up with was "substantially different" than what the NFL came up with that year. "They ended up using our schedule," Stone says. North says Stone was hired as the NFL's primary solution provider in 2004.

Safety in Numbers

The NFL now has the Optimal Planning Solutions software onsite. North says that while they still take roughly the same time to make the schedule—10 weeks, from the day after the Super Bowl until the first week in April—"we work so much smarter, so much more efficiently," he says. "We can see the opportunity costs of some of our decisions. Whereas in the old days, once you put Cincinnati and Cleveland in week five, that decision was made. You have to just go down that path."

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