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OM in the News: Art and Science of Scheduling the N.F.L.

April 29, 2012

Howard Katz, NFL scheduling tzar

“We’re geniuses one day and absolute morons the next,” says Howard Katz, director of scheduling for the  National Football League. That’s because Katz must consider a confounding array of factors, from the N.F.L.’s expanded Thursday night package, which gives each team a game in a short week, to potential baseball playoff situations that could affect the availability of stadiums and parking lots in October.

The New York Times (April 20,2012) reports that for the networks that pay billions of dollars to carry N.F.L. games, Katz’s staff has been mostly geniuses. N.F.L. games were watched by an average of 17.5 million viewers last season. N.F.L. games accounted for 23 of the 25 most-watched television shows among all programming, and the 16 most-watched shows on cable last fall.

Designing a schedule that generates those ratings, while also guaranteeing competitive fairness, is more complicated than ever, even though software spits out 400,000 complete or partial schedules (once done entirely by hand) from a possible 824 trillion game combinations. Katz starts with thousands of seed schedules, empty slates in which a handful of critical games with attractive story lines are placed in select spots. Then the computers generate possibilities around those games.

The N.F.L. also feeds the computer with penalties for situations it prefers to avoid — three-game trips, for example, or teams starting with two road games. There are requests not to play at home on certain holidays — the Jets and the Giants typically ask not to play home games during the Jewish High Holy Days.  This year, the software generated 14,000 playable schedules, which were reduced to 150 with an eyeball test. Katz reviewed those 150 by hand, scoring them for each team and each network.

Linear programming may be at the heart of scheduling, but the process is definitely part art and part science.

Discussion questions:

1. Why is scheduling sports teams so complex?

2. Are all the teams happy with the final schedules?

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