The NFL Schedule is a Massive Optimization Problem

This is a fascinating Los Angeles Times piece that profiles the computing power that is required to generate the NFL schedule. A team of four members and hundreds of computers are used to sift through 26,000+ conditions, with trillions of possible permutations, to generate the 2016 NFL schedule:

With 256 games, 17 weeks, six time slots, five networks and four possible game days — Sunday, Monday, Thursday and Saturday — there are hundreds of trillions of potential schedule combinations. Katz and his team are searching for the single best, and they have as many as 255 computers around the world running 24/7 to find the closest possible match to the ideal slate of games.

The schedules that have come out in the last couple of years are much more sophisticated:

Among the scheduling elements that are factored in now, but were not deeply considered in the old days: How much is a team traveling, and how far? Is someone playing a road game against a team coming off its bye week? Is anyone playing a road game six days after being on the road on a Monday night? Is a club overloaded with consecutive opponents who made the playoffs the previous season? Has a team gone multiple seasons with its bye at Week 5 or earlier?

An incredible optimization problem. The ultimate schedule that was selected was hand-judged against 333 other schedules generated by the computers to make sure it was the most optimal schedule.

Read the rest here. Here is the 2016 NFL schedule.

What it Takes to Air a Football Game on FOX

Writing in The Verge, David Pierce traces what it takes for FOX to air a football game on a given Sunday. FOX is the network broadcasting the Super Bowl in 2014, so every game is essentially a preparation for the team that brings us close to the action on our televisions:

It starts at 6AM on Saturday, in the cold, dark Foxboro morning, as the Fox team shows up to unload three 53-foot trucks. Stadiums don’t have much in the way of built-in A / V equipment, so Fox (and every other network) carries everything the crew will need for the weekend inside those trucks — the show has to be built and broken down every weekend. This Saturday, it has to be even faster: there’s a college football game at 4PM.

Kevin Callahan, Fox’s director of technical operations, estimates Fox credentialed between 150 and 200 people for the weekend, from Troy Aikman and director Rich Russo to runners and microphone holders. The network brings in about $25 million worth of equipment, with thousands of individual parts. (Callahan is reluctant to even guess at the number: “It depends on how small you want to get,” he says. “I mean, the production switcher alone has 1,000 buttons on it.”) Callahan and his crew have to wire the entire stadium, rig up cameras and audio, and make sure hundreds of different parts are able to connect to each other. “This is actually a very well-oiled machine,” he says. “The mobile units that we’re using here were designed in 2005 and 2006 — at the time they were eight years ahead of their time.”

In one truck, graphics and production. In another, 20 feet away in the concrete garage underneath the stands, replay and audio. Russo estimates he has 15 cameras and 13 tape machines this week, capturing and replaying angles from all over the stadium — there’s even a helicopter flying around shooting from above. The graphics team, eight or so young guys in polo shirts, is preparing more than 1,000 graphics, with every record or outcome accounted for. Rich Russo and producer Richie Zyontz talk to everyone through speakers and headsets, voicing their constant chatter to the 150-member Fox crew throughout the weekend. Colby Bourgeios, the team’s technical director, sits at his giant switcher ready to put any camera, any person, any replay on TV with the press of one of a thousand buttons. Audio consultant Fred Aldous watches and listens on his own console, making sure everything sounds as good as it looks — in stereo and 5.1-channel surround sound.

Eventually, nearly everyone says, you just learn to do it by feel.

This bit on 4K television was interesting:

Fox has been using 4K cameras for three years, but not to broadcast the game, which the crew says would be pointless given current bandwidth and TV technology. It’s all about replay. “We can do things like zoom in, look at a guy’s foot… we can see precisely a nice, solid foot, and a line right there, and know that the guy is in,” says Colby Bourgeios, Fox’s technical director. This year is about fine-tuning — finding the right camera, the right lens, the right capture and extraction devices. But even when 4K works convincingly, Callahan says, “we need it to be the first or second replay. If we were to sit there and have a 4K replay that we could show two plays later… and that would have reversed the official’s call, well, that’s awful.” He won’t add anything to the Fox broadcast that will slow it down, or impede it in any way.

Good read if you’re into football and/or sports.

Roger Goodell and the Hugs at the NFL Draft

Today marks the start of the 2013 NFL Draft. The New York Times has a great story on how the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, has started giving out hugs at the Draft. It all started out in 2010 with Gerald McCoy:

When the Buccaneers selected him with the No. 3 pick in the 2010 N.F.L. draft, McCoy did something no player had done. He strode across the stage and embraced Commissioner Roger Goodell, a spontaneous show of emotion that proved significant: McCoy had broken the hug barrier.

“I wasn’t aware that I was the first when it happened,” McCoy said by telephone, “but I am now.”

Inspired by McCoy, Goodell has become a proactive hugger. But there are hugging rules:

In his predraft briefing with players, Goodell now includes hug-specific instructions. They can hug him for as long as they want, with one caveat: try not to break his ribs. A couple of players have come close. Such are the perils of “bringing it in” with 300-pound offensive linemen.

Wonderful.

Thought Experiment: The End of the NFL

The NFL season may be over, but the conversation on the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players will continue. Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier contemplate a thought experiment on the demise of the NFL:

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it’s not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

They contemplate it might take some time, at least ten years:

Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players — or worse, high schoolers — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn’t worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it’s mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.

Very interesting read. Will the day ever come when Americans refer to soccer when they say football?

Links of the Day (02/08/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading recently:

(1) “Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It’s Awesome” [New York Times] – I am not e-mailing this column, but I am blogging about it. The New York Times conducted a six month study to determine which articles were the most popular ones (as measured by number of times the articles were e-mailed):

To make sense of these trends in “virality,” the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article’s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

The results of the study are interesting. Most people preferred to send out emotional articles (in particular, those articles that were positive or happy in nature). I also found it surprising that people preferred to share articles which were longer in length (perhaps because longer articles are better researched or more compelling in general). The New York Times elaborates:

Sharing recipes or financial tips or medical advice makes sense according to classic economic utility theory: I give you something of practical value in the hope that you’ll someday return the favor. There can also be self-interested reasons for sharing surprising articles: I get to show off how well informed I am by sending news that will shock you.

The only thing left to do is for you, Dear Reader, to email that article to your friends (or you can just tell them about this blog).

(2) “The Time It Takes to Win It All” [Wall Street Journal] – The New Orleans Saints defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV last night. This article explores the amount of work that players and coaches spend working in a typical NFL season. The most eye-opening paragraph:

According to an operational study of National Football League teams prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Boston Consulting Group, the typical NFL season requires 514,000 hours of labor per team. That’s about eight times the effort it took to conceptualize, build and market Apple’s iPod, according to BCG, and enough time to build 25 America’s Cup yachts. If both Super Bowl teams dedicated themselves to construction rather than football, their members could have built the Empire State Building in seven seasons.

It’s a well-researched article and definitely worth reading.

(3) “In Search of the World’s Hardest Language” [The Economist] – this article is from December 2009, but I just read it the other day in my print version of The Economist. I recommend reading the entire piece (did you know that in Turkish you can create a sentence such as “Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, which means “Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?”) but if you’re curious, the Economist’s conclusion for the world’s hardest language:

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ.


Links of the Day (02/05/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading over the last few days:

(1) “Who Dat Owns ‘Who Dat’? Dat’s Us, Sez da NFL” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting scenario is unfolding on the streets of New Orleans. The NFL is telling vendors that they can’t sell t-shirts with the words “Who Dat” printed on them, presumably because the NFL owns the trademark on the phrase. It sounds like the NFL is trying to seize as much profit as this surge by the Saints leads to Super Bowl Sunday. Is this a case of a monopoly or something else?

(2) “The State of Molecular Cuisine” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting look into the world of molecular gastronomy.

(3) “Why Twitter Will Endure” [New York Times] – David Carr explains why Twitter is here to stay. It’s a very insightful piece which has gained more traction recently, as another columnist named George Packer wrote a column in The New Yorker opposing the use of Twitter:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell.

What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Packer hasn’t actually created a Twitter account and discovered Twitter for himself. He’s relying on hearsay. If you’re on Twitter, what’s your opinion of its usefulness? If you aren’t on Twitter, why not?

(4) “Hi There” [The Economist] – a very interesting piece on how different cultures address and treat politeness and/or respect. Did you know that the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, is the only person in the world who can seriously be addressed as Serenity? Definitely worth reading.