SBJ/20100426/This Week's News

NFL schedule navigated World Series, other conflicts

NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz said this year’s process of completing the league’s regular-season slate was as complicated as ever, as the league had to navigate around baseball’s postseason schedule as well as other events in NFL markets.

The conflicts, in some cases, were substantial enough to cause a week’s delay in the formal release of the schedule.

For the first time since it’s had the league’s Sunday night TV package, NBC will be carrying a game against Game 4 of the World Series. Katz and his scheduling team specifically picked New Orleans to host the Oct. 31 game, since it is far from any MLB market. New Orleans’ opponent is Pittsburgh, a market whose Pirates are a long shot to make the MLB playoffs.

“I didn’t want to do it in a baseball market where fans might have to divide their interest and their attention between a World Series Game 4 and an NFL game,” said Katz, the NFL’s senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. “That’s good for us and good for baseball.”

MLB’s League Championship Series schedule also became a problem for Katz, as he did not find out until late into the NFL’s scheduling process that the postseason schedule had two National League Championship Series games falling on Sunday. That caused the NFL to make another tweak to its schedule.

“If the [Philadelphia] Phillies get into the NLCS, we had to make sure that the Eagles aren’t having a game [that day],” Katz said. “We had to make sure that the [Florida] Marlins, if they got into the NLCS, could host a game. That was a late curve that we had to deal with.”

The problem is that making a change isn’t as simple as replacing one game with another. Each change throws a wrench into the complicated matrix that makes up the schedule for all 32 teams.

For example, the NFL originally had the Buffalo Bills hosting a Week 17 game at Ralph Wilson Stadium. But once the league found out that Buffalo was hosting hockey’s World Junior Championships over the same weekend, they had to put the Bills on the road, visiting the New York Jets at New Meadowlands Stadium.

“There wasn’t going to be a hotel room anywhere closer than Rochester [N.Y.], which we didn’t think would be fair to any visiting club,” Katz said.

The NFL’s schedule has become an increasingly important component in helping drive TV ratings, which increased significantly for all of the league’s TV partners last season. Nine games last season drew more than 25 million viewers. The previous season, that number was three.

The good news for the league, despite the challenges to this year’s process: Each of the networks praised the schedule that was finalized for 2010.

From January, when the scheduling process starts, to April, when the schedule is released, Katz estimated that NFL computers generated a total of 500,000 schedules, each of which was assigned a point system. Penalty points were added to schedules that have various conflicts, such as when a team has a three-game road trip or starts the season with two road games.

Katz and his team wound up reviewing what he called 5,000 “playable schedules.” They eventually whittled that down to the best one, but they still were far from finished.

“Then we keep generating more and more schedules, trying to find something that’s better than the one that we’ve got,” he said. “We probably went through 50 finished, completed schedules that we wanted to see if they were better than the schedule that we had. It’s almost like a bake-off.”

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