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.

1 2 3 Page 3
Page 3 of 3

Now, North says, they can finish a thousand schedules with a Cincinnati and Cleveland game in week five, and then, if need be, put in a rule that says: Cincinnati and Cleveland can't be in week five. "Are any of those better, and at what cost to the rest of the schedule?" he asks. "You can have this level of analysis and comparison that we were never able to generate before."

Each schedule generated, taking into account the parameters and constraints set up, receives a score. For example, if one network gets the game that it wants, that schedule gets positive scores. If there's a situation where a team has to play three games in a row on the road or a short week: playing on a Monday, followed by a Sunday game and both are road games—those are negative things that count against the schedule.

"We can enumerate everything that goes into a schedule, and then we try to get the best possible score," Stone says. "And that scoring system continuously changes as you're trying to marry the request of the fans versus the networks versus teams versus everything else. There's always changing priorities as you're going through this."

What's important to the NFL is that the software hasn't become the final decision-maker; the software facilitates and enhances the decision making as the NFL strives to better serve its 32 teams, TV network partners and fans.

"The beauty of the software is that we can go into every single game, every single week, every single team, every single place where we could be playing a game and we put some parameters around it," North says. "You can say to the software: Mix and match these any way you want to, just know that each game comes with a certain set of parameters. I don't want to play this game any earlier than week three or this game any later than week 14. That game should fall in sweeps week, somewhere between 9 and 12. That game should be in Pittsburgh instead of in Cleveland. That game needs to be on a Thursday night, which means that both teams need to be playing a home game the week prior."

"The software," he adds, "can do what we were only dreaming of doing 10 years ago."

Trillions of Possibilities and Big Benefits

The first and perhaps most important benefit of the software is that North says the NFL is able to achieve "competitive fairness" in its schedules every year. "There are literally trillions of possible NFL schedules every year," North says. (Stone thinks North's estimate is low. The possibilities are "infinite," he says.) "Now we get to look through thousands and thousands and thousands of them and pick the ones that are fairest overall to everybody as opposed be being able to get one done."

Since they've been using the software, NFL execs have been able to uncover scheduling trends that potentially could have placed one team at a disadvantage, North says. For example, data showed that it was unfair for teams that had to travel to play another team that had had a bye week the week right before. "That was something we were never able to account for or even think about up until about a couple of years ago," North says. "We were doing it without even knowing."

So, with the Optimal Planning software, the NFL has built a constraint into the application which ensures that that won't happen to any team more than twice in a season, and only once against a division rival (each division has four teams). "Little things like that improve the overall quality of schedule every year," North says.

North says that the quality of the schedules and the ability to score each schedule—"instead of taking a subjective view, having an objective view," he says—have contributed to the increase in TV rights payments by the networks. "These networks are playing a lot of money to the NFL. If they weren't being given quality schedules, if they weren't able to reach the most amount of fans and satisfy sponsors and advertisers, then they wouldn't pay those rights fees contract after contract, season after season," North says. "I can't help but think the scheduling process, becoming more automated and more efficient, has enabled the league to deliver a higher quality product to our business partners."

But this is only the very beginning, North points out. "Initially it was: Holy cow, look we can get a schedule done with a computer. That's pretty neat," he says. "Now it's, OK, here's a million more things that we want to be able to do."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

1 2 3 Page 3
Page 3 of 3
Discover what your peers are reading. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters today!