By Graeme Perrow
Scheduling in pro sports leagues is hard. I cannot imagine the complexity of the software that does scheduling for a league of 30 teams and 82 games (NHL, NBA) or 162 games (MLB). Even 16-game seasons like the NFL or NLL are pretty complex. You have to take into account arena availability (though many NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL teams have first priority on the arena / stadium), how many games against division / conference opponents should there be, other league-imposed rules like the Maple Leafs must always play at 7pm on Saturday nights, and travel time (you can't have a home game in New York on Saturday and a road game in Vancouver on Sunday). In the NHL, you're talking about 30 teams and 82 games each, or 1230 games. That's gotta be a nightmare to schedule. I'm not sure if scheduling baseball would be easier or harder, since all their games are in groups of 3 or 4. So before I talk about the problems in the NLL scheduling, I want to say that I realize that this is a hard problem.
Having said that, the software that does the scheduling for the NLL has some flaws. Either that, or some of the league-imposed rules are a little silly. In the six seasons from 2005 to 2010 inclusive, here are some things I noticed:
- Rochester played in Colorado four times but Colorado only played in Rochester once.
- Colorado has had a weird schedule hosting teams from the East. Rochester has played there four times, Buffalo and Philly two, Toronto zero.
- Toronto never played in San Jose or Colorado, and the Stealth and Mammoth only played in Toronto once each. (Toronto did play the Washington Stealth once in 2010, but only in the Championship Game.)
- Buffalo and San Jose each hosted the other only once.
- San Jose hosted the Rock, the Bandits, and the Knighthawks once each, but Philly three times.
- Cal-Edm games in Calgary: ten. Cal-Edm games in Edmonton: six.
- Edm-Col games in Colorado: eight. Edm-Col games in Edmonton: five.
- Buf-Min games in Buffalo: eight. Buf-Min games in Minnesota: five.
- Neither Edmonton nor Calgary have ever played in Buffalo or Philadelphia, but they've played in Toronto four and six times respectively. The Bandits have played in Calgary once (plus one Championship game) and Edmonton twice, and Philly has played twice in Calgary and twice in Edmonton. Toronto has played five times in Edmonton and six in Calgary.
I get that the NLL wants teams from the same division to play each other more often, and I have no problem with that. But the Stealth were in San Jose for six seasons, and the only time they played the Rock was the last game of the sixth season in Toronto. In a league with this few teams, does it make sense to have two teams go almost six full seasons without meeting at all? And for the love of Jim Veltman, can we please do away with this supposed Canadian rivalry that doesn't exist? I think Calgary and Edmonton could have a good rivalry with each other because they're so close together (and already have rivalries in the NHL and CFL), but Toronto's main NLL rivals are the Bandits. A rivalry that's forced on the fans doesn't work, and it makes the scheduling problems even worse.
I'd love to see a system that allowed every team to play every other team at least once per season, but I understand that this may cause scheduling difficulties. But every other year should be doable. Now that there's five teams in each division (not that that is likely to last long – article on NLL stability coming soon), the scheduling could go something like:
- three games against other each team in the same division = twelve games (alternate 2 home + 1 away or 1 home + 2 away from year to year)
- one game against four of the five teams in the other division. That's four more games, totalling sixteen. The team that gets skipped changes from year to year, so you won't go more than one season without seeing any one team. Alternate home and away as well so you don't have a discrepancy that way.
Maybe this is just too difficult a problem for a simplistic solution like this to work. But the Toronto Rock and the Washington Power / Colorado Mammoth had a pretty good rivalry going back in the day, when they played each other in the semifinals three years in a row (2001 and 2002 as the Power and 2003 as the Mammoth). In the seven seasons since then, the Rock and the Mammoth have only played each other in the regular season once. Obviously, something is wrong with the current scheduling system.