Sticking to the schedule

One of my favorite SportsBiz columns for ColoradoBiz Magazine provides a behind-the-scenes look at how sports leagues figure out which teams will play when, and where. From June 2005, here’s a profile of a math genius and his work.

Puzzle Flickr Olga Berrios 4-16

The Nuggets couldn’t play at home during the last weekend in February because of back-to-back Freestyle Motocross events at Pepsi Center. Instead, the team was in Memphis on Friday and in New Orleans on Sunday night, the latter game dictating the Nuggets couldn’t play a day game Monday. Which was perfectly fine, because the players had to travel back to Denver anyway for a game Tuesday night. Which would have left Wednesday available for a home game, except that Pepsi Center was reserved for an Avalanche-Predators game that night.

A Rubik’s cube is child’s play compared to the computational puzzle that surrounds sports-league scheduling. Trying to squish thousands of games into the calendar while accounting for everything from Paul McCartney concerts to network TV demands is about as easy as nailing a three with Allen Iverson in your face. Scheduling means diving into a muddy brew of restrictions, parameters, rules, quirks, unanticipated changes, divisional conflicts, travel limitations and dozens of other ingredients that clamor for consideration.

Into this cauldron steps a mild-mannered mathematics wizard from Queens, N.Y., named Arthur Steiker. He’s tall and thin, with a baritone voice that operates at a deliberate, measured cadence. Steiker also is the managing director of a Denver company that plays a big role in helping major sports leagues decide when teams will play each other.

Bortz Media & Sports Group, operating from the 14th floor of a Denver Tech Center tower, develops and licenses the software that gnaws its way through the knotty thicket of league scheduling requirements until it spits out schedules its league clients can approve. Customers including the National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and a handful of high-profile college conferences rely on Bortz Media to transform a slew of instructions into workable schedules. Bortz Media officials take pains to emphasize the leagues themselves determine who plays when. But if you’ve attended a Nuggets game this year, you were there at least in part because Bortz Media’s software determined that particular game could be scheduled at that particular time.

For Steiker, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California-Berkeley, it’s all about numbers. “I look at it as a mathematical problem, or a modeling problem,” he says.

At a conference room in the Bortz Media office, Steiker displays an example of a work-in-progress schedule for a well-known collegiate football conference. The computer has churned out a neatly color-coded schedule for the 2005 season. But right away, Steiker notices a flaw.

“Okay, right here. See? This can’t happen.” The problem: two straight “bye” weeks for one team, violating conference policy. The missing equation will be planted into the code, and the schedule will be recalculated.

Mathematical ideal
Such are the vagaries of scheduling. The number of equations considered by the Bortz Media scheduling application can stretch into the hundreds of thousands for leagues with lots of teams. There are equations that limit how far teams may travel within a set time span. There are equations dictated by what team a TV network wants to showcase. And there are equations that attempt to dole out a relatively balanced number of weekend games – when ticket and concession sales tend to be highest – to all teams. Bortz Media crunches the myriad of equations until it reaches a sort of mathematical ideal – a point where any change in a single area causes a negative consequence elsewhere.

No matter what the requirements are, the solution has more to do with math than sports. League schedules are the main output, but any planning exercise that demands complicated resource-allocation decisions can make use of the Bortz Media tool. For example, Bortz Media is allied with Carmen Systems, a Swedish transportation industry “resource optimization” firm, in helping airlines schedule flight crews. Steiker is working to broaden the reach of the Bortz Media optimization application to industries that depend on allocating resources across multiple locations and facilities. Hospitals, media companies and police departments are good candidates.

But sports remain the lifeblood of Bortz Media, which has advised teams on media rights values and ticket pricing strategies since its 1970s inception. Steiker developed the firm’s first scheduling software program for the NBA for the 1985-86 season, and has been helping the NBA produce its schedules ever since. The mathematician in Steiker recognizes it has been a long and rewarding run. “It was Patrick Ewing’s rookie year,” says Steiker. “He’s retired. I’m not.”

Image by Flickr Commons contributor Olga Berrios.