Making a Pro Soccer League Schedule – A Lot Like Making Sausage…or Something

Putting together a pro soccer league schedule in America is as difficult as solving a Rubik's Cube.

Putting together a pro soccer league schedule in America is as difficult as solving a Rubik's Cube.

There are plenty of analogies to making a schedule for a professional soccer league in America…it’s like making sausage, it’s like solving a Rubik’s Cube, it’s like solving a complicated code or a cylindrical geometry push-button combination lock.  There are countless combinations and dozens of variables and restrictions.

American soccer schedules are significantly more difficult to complete than those in most leagues around the world for a few important reasons:

  • Several teams are second or even third tenants at their stadia
  • Travel distance is significantly greater than almost all other pro soccer leagues
  • The number of teams (and sometimes divisions) changes from year to year
  • There is often an unbalanced schedule

I’ve always loved the scheduling process and viewed it as a competition of my team battling the League and all the other teams to secure as many prime dates (and times) as possible.

There are many moving parts with two basic goals, which at times can be at odds.  You want the schedule to give you the best chance to maximize revenue and to win a championship.

Some of the business decisions are subjective:

  • Are Sundays better than Fridays?
  • Are Sunday evenings better than Sunday afternoons?
  • Are Thursday nights better than Wednesday nights?
  • Is 7:30 pm better kickoff time than 7:00 pm for weekday games?
  • Is a weeknight in the summer better than a Saturday in April?
  • Is a home game in September better than a home game in June?
  • Do these questions have different answers for outdoor soccer vs. indoor soccer? For women’s vs. men’s soccer?

(BTW, i believe the answers to all the questions above is “Yes”)

Then there are the ways to improve your competitive edge:

  • Minimize travel by scheduling multiple game trips
  • Schedule home games against teams that are tired from another game and/or difficult travel
  • Play weak teams more in an unbalanced schedule
  • Play teams with a lot of national team players during international game windows (though this can hurt attendance)
  • Schedule more home games in the final month

Other variables include:

  • Television needs
  • Rivalries
  • World Cup conflicts
  • Opportunities for double headers (WPS/MLS)
  • Local youth tournaments that can be leveraged for ticket sales
  • Desire to evenly balance and spread home dates over the schedule
  • Desire to minimize home dates during cold weather months
  • Team rankings of their preferred dates

And there are certain tricks that newcomers to the process (or those that are less competitive) will miss such as:

  • Submitting minimum number of date avails to the League
  • Doing the League’s work to try to find date flips that will improve your dates (mainly by resulting in an additional weekend date)
Like making sausage, making a schedule isn't pretty.

Like making sausage, making a schedule isn't pretty.

For my money, the master scheduler in professional soccer is Brad Pursel, MLS Vice-President of Team Services.  In this terrific Goal.com article Kyle McCarthy, shows how Pursel has helped with the MLS schedule process since 1997 and led it since 2002.  Pursel describes the challenges in assembling the MLS schedule this way.  “It’s one of those twisted puzzle things you enjoy putting together,” Pursel said. “You take a lot of lumps along the way, but it’s part of the process.”

MLS uses both computer outputs and manual adjustments to make an initial schedule that will make up the foundation of the schedule.

“We’re getting to the point where we have enough input from the teams and our TV partners that when we assemble those early drafts, they’re in pretty good shape,” Pursel told Goal.com. “When we go through the back and forth with the teams, it’s about fine tuning and making some of those harder final decisions.”

As an example of the process, the following  shows how this year’s Women’s Professional Soccer schedule was put together.  The outline shows the tight timeline WPS COO Mary Harvey and WPS Head of New Media Karyn Lush had while working with GMs to phenomenally put together the schedule in the face of tight deadlines, conflicts from college and professional venues alike as well as the sundry issues described above:

2010 WPS Schedule Process:

1. Tuesday, Jan. 26: Created master calendar of teams’ stadium availabilities

2. Thursday, Jan. 28: Working with GMs, listed priorities for scheduling algorithm including:

• 24 games total per team – 12 home and 12 away. Each team will play every other team three times and

three opponents a fourth time. The first consideration went to FC Gold Pride to alleviate their travel costs.

Then we considered geographic rivalries.

• There must be a minimum of one game on each Sunday for Fox Soccer Channel (FSC) to broadcast.

McDermott Rule: No team should host more than two games / weekends in a row unless the team specifically requests this or agrees to this.

• As we’re playing 24 games in 22 weeks, each team must play a minimum of two mid-week games.

• Avoid MLS and NASL/USL conflicts as much as possible.

3. Friday, Jan. 29: Sent master calendar of teams’ stadium availabilities and guidelines to the scheduler.

4. Wednesday, Feb. 3 – Thursday, Feb. 4: Draft 1: Determined actual home dates for teams.  Due to high # of issues, sent back to scheduler before showing the draft to teams.

5. Wednesday, Feb. 10 – Thursday, Feb. 11: Draft 2: Sent to teams for feedback. Due to a handful of new stadium availability issues, sent back to scheduler.

6. Friday, Feb. 12 – Sunday, Feb. 14: Draft 3: Sent to teams for final approval and kick off times. Seven of eight teams approve of schedule.

7. Monday, 15: Draft Re-sent to teams as Feb. 3: Re “tentatively final” pending FSC feedback. Sent to PR / Web managers to prep schedule announcement. One team raised an issue. Went back to the scheduler to solve outstanding issue.

8. Tuesday, Feb. 16: Drafts 4-7: Reviewed at league office and quickly rejected due to either (a) not solving high priority issues or (b) creating new issues which would be labeled high priority.

9. Wednesday, Feb. 17: First pass of TV schedule sent to FSC. Talks ensue. Draft 8 is sent to teams for final approval and kick off times. All 8 teams approve schedule. Schedule sent to PR / Web Managers to prep schedule announcement.

10. Thursday, Feb. 18: FSC approves TV schedule, final schedules noting final TV games sent to teams.  Schedule announced at 12 pm PT.

Finally, I have a real-life scheduling challenge for you to weigh in on.  Here is the difficult decision my professional indoor soccer team, the Milwaukee Wave, may very well face in the coming weeks.  If the Wave finish the MISL season in first place, we will host the championship game the weekend of April 2-4.  Each of the dates has serious drawbacks for selling tickets:

  • Friday, April 2nd is Good Friday and the Milwaukee Brewers have their first game of the year in town, an evening exhibition game vs. the Detroit Tigers at the domed Miller Park.
  • Saturday, April 3rd has another Brewers/Tigers exhibition game at 1:00 pm, youth soccer during the day, the NCAA basketball Final Four semi-final games tip off on national television at 4:10 pm and 7:00 pm and Milwaukee Bucks are home vs. Phoenix Suns at night.
  • Sunday, April 4th is Easter Sunday

Let me know in the comment section below what day and time you would choose to play.  After a couple days, I will give you my opinion on this difficult no-win decision.

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