The NFL Schedule: A Giant Rubik’s Cube

The process behind creating the NFL schedule is very complicated and requires a lot of math, science, and human input.

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Imagine a Rubik’s cube. When it’s mixed up, it’s difficult to solve for the average person. Now, imagine that certain squares are locked in place, but other squares are meant to coincide with different parts of the cube. The NFL schedule is exactly this: a giant Rubik’s cube with fixed pieces. Two of the people responsible for creating this schedule are Howard Katz, NFL Senior Vice President of Broadcasting and Media, and Michael North, Senior Director of Broadcasting. I recently sat down and spoke with them about how they make the NFL schedule, a technology and math problem that might stump even the best Stuy student.

Katz and North begin their work on the schedule in January, while the previous NFL season is still going on. It’s a long and arduous process. “There are over 700 trillion possible schedules out there. We’re looking for a needle in a haystack, but the first thing to do is to see if we can find the right haystack,” Katz said.

He and North use a program which relies on a network of more than 200 computers worldwide. This program has tens of billions of variables, including nearly every possible change that could be made to a schedule. “It’s a combination of math, science, and human input,” Katz said.

“[We] know the 256 matchups the day the [previous] regular season ends,” North said. For each team, this includes six games against the three other teams in their division (one home and one away), four games against teams from a division in the American Football Conference (AFC), four games against teams from a division in the National Football Conference (NFC), and two games against teams in their conference, which are chosen based on the previous year’s regular season record.

The NFL uses a set of 30,000 rules, each with a certain number of points attached to them, to determine the usability of their schedule. These rules have points assigned to them, from 1 point (barely consequential) to 999 points (absolutely cannot be broken).

One major issue with matchups is that they have to fit within a team’s stadium blocks, the days when it is available. “The first thing we do is take all the stadium blocks and put those onto the board to show when you can’t play a game at a stadium,” Katz said. These blocks can range from baseball games (in places like Oakland and Philadelphia), the Chicago Marathon, or even NASCAR.

Another issue is balancing the schedule between being team-friendly and TV-friendly. “Somewhere between these two extremes, we’re looking for the right shade of gray instead of black or white,” North said. “It’s not even about satisfying [the teams and the networks], it’s about disappointing them, hopefully equally and hopefully not that much.” That is, finding the best possible balance between giving the teams enough rest and making sure the best games get on TV. “Our job is to make sure that those must-see matchups get into must-see windows,” North said. These must-see windows are the primetime games and the 4:15 - 4:30 start-time games on Sunday. The teams that get into these windows the most are usually the Cowboys, Packers, Patriots, and Steelers, as they have the largest national followings.

To do so, the NFL employs two methods: flex games and cross-flexing. Flex games are games late in the season that can have their time changed a week in advance, and cross-flexing is switching games between Fox and CBS to ensure that more of the country sees a big game. This usually occurs when a team that was not expected to be good at the beginning of the season becomes a team of national relevance. A recent example was the Los Angeles (LA) Rams. “No one saw the LA Rams coming,” Katz said. This is what led to the week 12 cross-flex of the Saints-Rams game from 1:00 PM ET on Fox to 4:15 PM ET on CBS.

Not surprisingly, technology has been a game changer in how the NFL is scheduled nowadays. “We’re more sophisticated than we’ve ever been before and our clubs are too,” Katz said. “We’re looking at things we would have never thought about because technology allows us to do that now.” But, even with today’s technology, complex math and human touch are still necessary to solve the Rubik’s Cube made up of tens of billions of variables, 256 matchups, 30,000 rules, and over 700 trillion possible solutions that make up the NFL’s regular season schedule.