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How the 2018 NWSL schedule got made

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Schedules: how do they work?

It is the ringing cry of NWSL fans worldwide: where is the schedule? Every season, without a doubt, what unites fans across borders and languages is a desire to see the NWSL schedule in its entirety. The cries grow more desperate as days peel off the calendar and opening weekend approaches. This year, NWSL fans got their hot little hands on the full schedule on February 21, two days after the start of preseason and 30 days before opening weekend. They released the 2017 schedule on March 1, but that season also started much later on April 15, giving them a 44-day cushion.

Where is this time crunch coming from? Creating a schedule is obviously not a small task – there are myriad factors to consider, and 2018 was complicated by the folding of the Boston Breakers, shifting the league’s requirements from 10 to nine teams. NWSL officially announced the folding on January 28, and managing director Amanda Duffy told reporters that the league had been looking for a way to stay at 10 teams right up until the last minute as they searched for a new Boston team owner. Perhaps that’s why the league turned to a third party for the first time to create their schedule. Until 2018, NWSL has always done its scheduling in-house, and had in fact already prepared a 10-team schedule that included Boston. That plan was no longer viable, so they brought in Optimal Planning Solutions, which specializes in sports scheduling.

OPS president Rick Stone said they’d been working on the NWSL schedule since about the beginning of February. In order to do so, they take a list of the league’s requirements and apply their own software.

“There’s two different types of rules that we can put into our software,” he said. “Either a fixed rule, like a must-have rule, or a like-to-have rule. And so we get all of the request from the clubs and the leagues and the networks and whoever else might be a staple in the schedule and we can convert everything that is potentially – I don’t want to say the word bad – but potentially a negative component of a schedule and penalize it.”

There are a lot of factors that have to be input, from start and end date, blackout dates like FIFA windows, broadcast requirements, number of matches, stadium availability/unavailability, rest time (particularly when dealing with midweek games), limiting consecutive home games or consecutive away games, travel, and more.

“So what our software does,” said Stone, “Is it builds a mathematical model that looks at every possible combination of schedules, which is millions or billions for a league this size, and comes back and says okay, this is the version that has the least number of penalties in it…. And then it’s just a matter of tweaking that through the different versions and modifying those rules and adding more rules as we go.”

Stone said that OPS was able to turn around a first draft of the schedule for NWSL in about 48 hours. They’ve dealt with similar leagues in the past and were able to apply some of their experiences to speed up the process. But that first iteration is still the one with “the least number of penalties,” which means the schedule then went into a back-and-forth with the league.

“Usually after the first version we send the draft to the league and the league will look over it, make sure that we’ve got an understanding of all the constraints and rules and priority of all of them,” said Stone. “And they’ll look at the first draft and say, oh, I forgot to tell you this rule, we don’t like to see this happen, or they might say yeah looks good except for Team A lost their stadium availability in the fourth week, or so forth.”

Stone said OPS only ever did a nine-team schedule for NWSL, which would point to the league believing they couldn’t turn around the schedule in-house in the remaining time frame. Stone also reinforced what Duffy and her predecessor Jeff Plush have said in that there are specific scheduling challenges when you have an odd number of teams, which is why NWSL has previously expressed a preference for expanding by two teams at a time in order to maintain an even number.

“Having an odd number of teams means that someone’s basically off every week,” Stone said. “Someone’s given a bye every week, which in some leagues it’s not as big of a deal, but in a league where you’ve got stadium availability issues to begin with it makes it a little bit more complicated…. Now you’ve got to make sure that teams don’t have their off days too close to each other and so forth. And there’s also, that’s one less match per week, so generally speaking you have to lengthen the season by probably two or three weeks for an odd number of teams versus an even number of teams. Just to get all of the matches in.”

Stone said the biggest complicating factor with NWSL scheduling was probably related to stadium availability. Not every team in the league plays at a stadium under the control of its ownership; Seattle, Sky Blue, Chicago, and Washington all have to negotiate for time at their home stadiums. In the future, this is another argument in favor of expansion teams coming in as partners of established teams who control their own training and playing grounds. For now, it’s a pain in the butt.

Overall, Stone said it was about two weeks from first conversations with NWSL to a finished calendar ready to publish. He called it a quick turnaround, which gives you some idea of the normal timeline for creating a schedule with NWSL’s particular variables, at least for a company that specializes in sports schedules. Fans might think with Boston so unstable, the league should have had a nine-team contingency schedule ready just in case, but either the league would have had to double the workload for their in-house schedule team or they would have had to pay a third-party like OPS without knowing if the expense would ultimately be worth it. The main time eater here seems to have been working out the last of those penalties that Stone mentioned, generating iterations as OPS sent a version of the schedule, the various clubs gave their input and sent it back, OPS made a new version, and so forth.

This is only a glimpse of how the sausage is made, but as the league attempts to continue growing, perhaps it’ll become the kind of experience that helps NWSL get faster and more responsive. Otherwise – well. Fans can get restless, and you wouldn’t like them when they’re restless.