Secrets of sports scheduling

Michael Trick, an operations researcher, will discuss Wednesday how math advances have improved sports scheduling.

Sports schedules: they impact players, fans, and television ratings âÄî which in turn affects advertising dollars. So whatâÄôs the best way to make matchups that can command a national audience, equitably distribute team travel time and satisfy fansâÄô desire for plenty of summertime home games? ItâÄôs a pricey question for multi-billion dollar industries like Major League Baseball . Carnegie Mellon business school operations research professor Michael Trick will discuss his fieldâÄôs approach Wednesday evening at the University of Minnesota. Sports scheduling is one example of the kind of complex problem operations research aims to solve by turning it into a math problem, University math professor Fadil Santosa said. Santosa directs the Institute for Math and Its Applications , which is sponsoring TrickâÄôs talk. Santosa said he wants people to know that math is used to solve decision-making problems such as coordinating deliveries to minimizing gas use and planning the motion of factory robots. And sports scheduling is a good place to start, as it presents not only a challenging problem, but a subject that most can relate to. Perhaps thatâÄôs part of what makes it so tough to schedule âÄî fans, players and TV stations all have a stake. Trick knows that well. HeâÄôs worked on Major League Baseball schedules as part of the Sports Scheduling Group , which has done MLB scheduling for the past several years and is currently working on the 2010 schedule. The league provides as many as 100,000 constraints, including limits on the number of games between any two particular teams, the amount of traveling a team has to do and a summer-months emphasis on home games, Trick said. His job is to find a handful of the best solutions for the league to choose from. Fifteen years ago, he said, the field of operations research wasnâÄôt able to address a problem as complex as sports scheduling. But now, with faster computers and better math models, operations researchers like Trick can take them on. However, while better scheduling has remedied some perennial MLB problems, itâÄôs also invited more complex requests, Doug Bureman , Sports Scheduling Group coordinating partner, said. In recent years, theyâÄôve found ways to avoid instances where teams spend four games at home, then four on the road. Those series are tough on teams and bad for ticket sales, he said. TheyâÄôre also getting better at remedying the âÄúripplesâÄù incurred when, for example, the pope speaks at Yankee Stadium , forcing the team on the road. As client requests become ever more complex, he said theyâÄôre âÄúalways trying to catch up.âÄù Minnesota Twins general manager Bill Smith said despite advancing technology, he doesnâÄôt think the scheduleâÄôs improved. Between special requests and team matchup restrictions, there are just so many new factors that itâÄôs become harder to do schedules based on good travel, he said. Smith said those factors include more special requests from teams about when theyâÄôd like to be home and away. For example, the Twins had to be away during last yearâÄôs Republican National Convention , but they like to be home during the state fair. But the Twins try to keep special requests at a minimum, he said, since they make it tougher to create good travel schedules, in which teams go to one region and play all the teams there rather than traveling long distances between games. Other changes have also made scheduling more complex. Fifteen years ago, he said, within each league, teams played each other a certain number of times âÄî it was a balanced schedule. Since then, the league has moved to an âÄúunbalancedâÄù schedule, with teams playing more games within their own divisions, he said. âÄúI think the people doing it, the technology, has allowed us to do better schedules,âÄù he said, âÄúbut weâÄôve thrown enough new features into it that it hasnâÄôt necessarily resulted in a better schedule.âÄù