SANTA CLARA, California – – The process of creating the NFL schedule used to be a tedious one, and executives like Val Pinchbeck spent months placing the games one by one on his board until the commissioner could approve a final product.
Making late tweaks or looking for alternative options when a big game moves from early to late in the season wasn’t really possible for all pieces of the intricate puzzle to fit together.
The 272-game schedule the NFL released on Wednesday was completely different. Amazon Web Services computers negotiated the trillions of ways in what day, at what time, and on what network to play each game and the league officials 80,000 of them before making a final decision.
“Now that we have all of the automation and hardware, we basically have 5,000 Vals,” said Mike North, vice president of NFL Broadcast. “Instead of Val making a schedule by hand. We have 5,000 computers that schedule each one. So we have 5,000 Vals out there.”
The planning process begins once the previous season ends and the opponents and websites are blocked for all games. The league asks the teams for suggestions on inquiries as well as the five network partners.
The final piece of the puzzle will be placed after the Super Bowl, with the champion hosting the season opener on Thursday evening. Tampa Bay was used as the host for Dallas in that game.
The league is trying to narrow down the trillions of options by kicking the schedule with around 80 prime-time “seed” games and other premium TV spots like double-header windows and holidays.
“If you start from scratch, go to 100 and hit the button, we could have every computer on the planet and all the years in our lives, and we would still never find one,” said North. “We have to break the problem into bite-sized pieces.”
The schedulers operate with a “leader in the clubhouse” mentality, with a schedule always positioned as a winner until it is replaced.
Every morning they get new schedules from the cloud computers and check if anyone is worth being the new leader. They then give instructions to the computers by removing some of the startup games or moving them to other places to see if that helps eliminate other problems.
The process repeats itself until the league has decided on a final option. While at the beginning of the process you could look at hundreds of schedules in a day, you might end up only getting five, all of which could be worth becoming the new leader.
“It’s a constant dance,” said North. “Thank god for the amount of hardware we can get our hands on. Before, when six computers were running side by side, we thought it was space shuttle technology. And now there are literally 5,000 soldiers out there all over the planet scattered, looking at a slightly different branch of the search tree, everyone is trying to find the magical, mythical unicorn on a perfect schedule. “
The NFL switched from the manual map to rooms full of servers that the league had to buy and configure. In 2017, the league signed a contract with Amazon to use cloud technology to create the schedule. In doing so, she took advantage of Amazon’s technology, which uses predictive analytics, to create a more ideal schedule for TV partners.
The deal allowed the NFL to access more computers at a cheaper cost, as Amazon does most of the work outside of business hours when demand for its cloud service is low.
AWS goes through trillions of possibilities, with the league looking at more than 80,000 of them to be considered playable.
“The performance and cost combined allow the NFL to create basically far, much more schedules than anyone could ever read,” said David Brown, vice president of Elastic Compute Cloud at Amazon. “It really allows them to come up with the perfect schedule. The NFL can literally accommodate an infinite number of possible inputs, which simply has never been possible before.”
The process was a little more complicated earlier this year as planners had to allow for both 16- and 17-game seasons to begin with.
While the 17th game added myriad more possible schedules to the equation, it also provided a factor that made it easier. Typically, games are assigned networks with each game where an AFC team is on its way to CBS and an NFC team is on its way to Fox.
Every network loses some of these games to prime-time partners, but the NFL tries to keep them fair for both CBS and Fox. The 16 games added this year are considered “free agents” so in week 6 the NFL could put a premium game like Dallas in New England on CBS without Fox considering it stolen.
With the new TV deal in 2023, all games will start as free agents, which makes the math equation easier, but also means that all network partners will likely have the same needs for big games.
Team requests fall into two main categories. There are usually more than 100 dates that teams cannot play at home due to the availability of the stadium or some other major event in the city and then there are other types of requests.
Some teams like to play one after the other on the opposite coast and spend a week of practice on the street. Some hope to play Thanksgiving or Christmas this season, others ask not to. Warm weather teams want to avoid the cold late in the season, and cold weather teams want to stay away from the heat and humidity in September.
And all of the teams remember every schedule from years past and make sure the NFL knows about them.
“Everyone has very long memories and very specific questions,” said North. “It’s a thankless job threading that needle, knowing we’ll never get there. The whole exercise here is creating the schedule so that all teams are disappointed as minimally and as evenly as possible.”