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Almost every major league in the U.S. now has its schedules out for the year. This is not an easy operation, especially in a country with the vast distances at play here. And fascinatingly, two articles today give us some rare insight into how the hell all this actually comes together.
In MLS, it’s schedule-craftsman Brad Pursel who is to “blame” for whatever game isn’t at the right convenient date for you or some other fan somewhere: “It’s one of those twisted puzzle things you enjoy putting together,” Pursel said of the effort in an excellent piece by Kyle McCarthy. “You take a lot of lumps along the way, but it’s part of the process.”
Things got a little simpler this year for MLS, with the addition of Philadelphia giving the league an even number of teams and a balanced schedule. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple:
The word process doesn’t begin to describe the lengthy and onerous toil of trying to compile a 240-game schedule that satisfies the needs of the 16 member clubs on and off the field, the three national television partners and the league office.
Although the project hums along at varying speeds during the entire calendar year, the schedulemaking process for the upcoming year commences in earnest during the previous summer when MLS executives and team officials determine the competition format for the upcoming season. Philadelphia’s arrival as the league’s 16th team in 2010 simplified the process considerably for this campaign: a 30-game schedule with each club playing every other side home and away.
The next step involves allocating the home openers. Assigning those dates historically takes place November or December, but MLS pushed up the announcement to September to take advantage of greater venue availability and permit more time to generate buzz for those matches.
Teams get directly involved in the process starting in the fall, typically in November. Each club submits a schedule wishlist for the upcoming season, ranking potential home dates on a priority basis and submitting a handful of blackout dates to avoid hosting matches when its home venue is unavailable.
MLS Vice-President Mark Abbott tells McCarthy the league’s three main priorities, two of which perhaps unsurprisingly and understandably enough are directly business-based: “maximizing attendance, creating a television schedule to maximize ratings and balancing the schedule from a competitive perspective.”
16 teams and 240 games is one thing. How about 3,000 regular season games for over 500 teams? That’s the task facing organisers of the Super Y-League, part of the USL structure, with four conferences, 16 divisions, and ages ranging from U-13 to the Super U-20s.
The priorities here are based around the clubs’ needs, obviously widely varied, as the organisers’ themselves explain in a post on the USL’s new Free Kicks blog.
Step 1. Finalize how many teams each club is putting into the division and in what age groups.
Step 2. Decide how many games each division will play and in what format. (Home and away, multiple groups, etc.)
Step 3. Collect scheduling matrixes from each club.
Step 4. Compile each of the clubs matrixes into one calendar-like document that shows us everyone who is available on any particular day.
Step 5. Create a schedule template in excel, listing each of the 3,000 + games.
Step 6. Start setting dates! We typically start with the long distance trips that require weekend dates and overnight stays. This step takes days and sometimes weeks to complete (depending on the division). Kate and Erin typically put on head phones and listen to some classic Backstreet Boys hits (our secret guilty pleasure) in order to truly focus on the task at hand.
Step 7. Once we assign all the dates to each game, we upload the schedule into our database and double and triple check everything!
Step 8. We then email a copy to each of our clubs primary contacts one week prior to our scheduling meeting so they have time to review and touch base with their coaches to see if any changes need to be made.
Step 9. We gather for a fun-filled day of scheduling in a neutral location, where each club is required to send a representative. Clubs work directly with one another making changes to the schedule where needed.
Step 10. After the meeting, we give the clubs an additional three weeks to make changes without penalty. We also have them turn in all of their home game times and venues.
Step 11. The schedule is posted online and is officially released to the public! The whole process from start to finish takes approximately 3 -4 months.
This all reminds me of a very good piece last June on the BBC’s site, explaining the mysteries of the somewhat mythical “fixture computer” in England. There, an element we haven’t heard discussed in the U.S. comes into play: the concerns of the police about potentially volatile fixtures.
The Football League, for example, sends out a questionnaire to all their clubs in March. This is a club’s opportunity to request specific dates they would like to avoid and what other team they would like to be paired with. The questionnaire is jointly signed off by the police and also reflects their concerns – issues such as ensuring high-profile matches do not clash with big events in a city.
So spare a thought for those who do have to navigate all these concerns to schedule the games we enjoy, usually only receiving opprobrium in return.