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.

The Future of the Sports Stadium: Connected

An interesting piece in Bloomberg on the future of the sports stadiums in the United States and the rest of the world. Think Wi-Fi networks, apps, mobile food ordering, and shorter trips to the bathroom:

Sports lovers have already proved there’s an appetite for the connected stadium. As many as a quarter of attendees at Nets games connect to the Barclays Center’s wireless network, according to a spokeswoman. But getting them to download the team’s app to try out some of the in-house features has been a challenge. Jayne Bussman-Wise, the digital director of the Nets, says the team is promoting the app to season ticket holders and on the arena’s website, and adding exclusive features such as camera angles and seat upgrades to attract more fans.

The 49ers have big ideas, but many of them are still in the planning phase. For one, the team intends to create a feature in its app to allow users in the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to see which of their friends are attending a game and where they’re sitting.

For his bathroom-line monitor, Garland hasn’t yet figured out which combination of connected devices and services will be used. The 49ers have looked at using cameras that would wirelessly report to a system that predicts the wait time, Garland says. The team is also exploring measuring traffic based on wireless signals from people’s mobile phones in a particular area, as many mapping services do to predict traffic on the road. There’s also a lower-tech solution, such as stationing attendants nearby equipped with iPads to monitor the line.

It sounds convincing, but it’s not going to make the trip to the stadium more popular if the ticket prices keep increasing every year.

Click through the article to read about how FIFA and the NHL are making advances as well.

The Philadelphia 76ers and the 9,999:1 Bet

I’m not a betting man, but this is an intriguing betting story from Las Vegas. According to the AP, one Vegas bookmaker, LVH, has listed an astronomical 9,999 to 1 odds that the Philadelphia 76ers will win the NBA title in 2014:

As the NBA season tips off, the over-under for total wins for the 76ers this year is 16.5, the lowest of any team and the lowest that LVH sports book oddsmaker Jeff Sherman can remember putting up on any NBA team in the last decade or so.

That means optimistic Philly fans — assuming there are any for a team with only a handful of legitimate NBA players — can win money if they bet their team can win 17 games or more in the 82-game regular season. Conversely, those who think the 76ers are even worse than they look can cash in if the season win total is 16 or fewer.

“They’ve pretty much made it known in Philadelphia they’re trying to get the No. 1 pick for Andrew Wiggins and not holding back,” Sherman said. “Teams try for the draft pick sometimes late in the season, but they’re basically doing it the whole season.”

It gets even better for true believers. They can get astronomical odds of 9,999-1 if they want to wager at the LVH on the 76ers winning the NBA title.

“It was the highest number our computers would let us put in,” Sherman said.

The 76ers aren’t alone in chasing after Wiggins, who has NBA scouts drooling even though he he’s just beginning his freshman season at Kansas. Things are pretty dismal in the desert, too, with the Phoenix Suns posted as the next worst NBA team with an over-under total of 19.5 wins.

That’s your bit of sports trivia at your next party/social gathering.

Adrian Cardenas on Quitting Baseball and Pursuing Creative Writing

One of the best pieces about baseball you’ll read this week (or this year) has nothing to do with the Boston Red Sox and their 2013 World Series title. It’s Adrian Cardenas writing in The New Yorker on why he quit the sport and took up creative writing:

When you lose yourself in the game, as you must, it’s all too easy to lose your sense of home. It didn’t take long for me to see how it happens, as I became friends with players and heard about the relationships and marriages that broke up, the relatives and close friends who faded from view, the parents or grandparents whose funerals were missed because of an expected call up to the majors. Sometimes I’d stay awake through the night, almost laughing to myself, mentally weighing the small fraction of success against the overshadowing personal and professional failure that comes with being a ballplayer.

I came to realize that professional baseball players are masochists: hitters stand sixty feet and six inches from the mound, waiting to get hit by a pitcher’s bullets; fielders get sucker punched in the face by bad hops, and then ask for a hundred more. We all fail far more than we succeed, humiliating ourselves in front of tens of thousands of fans, trying to attain the unattainable: batting a thousand, pitching without ever losing, secretly seeking the immortality of the record books. In spite of the torments—the career-ending injuries, the demotions, the fear of getting “Wally Pipped”—we keep rolling our baseball-shaped boulders up the impossible hill of the game, knowing we’ll never reach the top. Baseball is visceral, tragic, and absurd, with only fleeting moments of happiness; it may be the best representation of life. I was, and still am, in love with baseball. But I quit…

I quit because baseball was sacred to me until I started getting paid for it. The more that “baseball” became synonymous with “business,” the less it meant to me, and I saw less of myself in the game every time I got a check from the Philadelphia Phillies Organization, the Oakland Athletic Company, or the Chicago Cubs, L.L.C

Beautiful.

The American dream didn’t tell me that an experience only matters if I acknowledge it, that losing yourself in the game is a good way to lose what makes life meaningful. 

A must-read in entirety.

I wish Adrian the best and want to see what comes out of this next venture in his life.

 

 

On Genetic Advantages, Doping, and Sports

Malcolm Gladwell, in my opinion, has published the best piece he’s written this year in “Man and Superman.” The central question he posits: do genetic advantages make sports (in particular, cycling) unfair compared to those who choose to dope? Paraphrased: what qualifies as a sporting chance in athletic competitions? He goes through a brief comparison of elite athletes in skiing, long-distance running, but his primary focus is on cycling.

When Hamilton joined Armstrong on the U.S. Postal Service racing team, he was forced to relearn the sport, to leave behind, as he puts it, the romantic world “where I used to climb on my bike and simply hope I had a good day.” The makeover began with his weight. When Michele Ferrari, the key Postal Service adviser, first saw Hamilton, he told him he was too fat, and in cycling terms he was. Riding a bicycle quickly is a function of the power you apply to the pedals divided by the weight you are carrying, and it’s easier to reduce the weight than to increase the power. Hamilton says he would come home from a workout, after burning thousands of calories, drink a large bottle of seltzer water, take two or three sleeping pills—and hope to sleep through dinner and, ideally, breakfast the following morning. At dinner with friends, Hamilton would take a large bite, fake a sneeze, spit the food into a napkin, and then run off to the bathroom to dispose of it. He knew that he was getting into shape, he says, when his skin got thin and papery, when it hurt to sit down on a wooden chair because his buttocks had disappeared, and when his jersey sleeve was so loose around his biceps that it flapped in the wind. At the most basic level, cycling was about physical transformation: it was about taking the body that nature had given you and forcibly changing it.

“Lance and Ferrari showed me there were more variables than I’d ever imagined, and they all mattered: wattages, cadence, intervals, zones, joules, lactic acid, and, of course, hematocrit,” Hamilton writes. “Each ride was a math problem: a precisely mapped set of numbers for us to hit. . . . It’s one thing to go ride for six hours. It’s another to ride for six hours following a program of wattages and cadences, especially when those wattages and cadences are set to push you to the ragged edge of your abilities.”

Hematocrit, the last of those variables, was the number they cared about most. It refers to the percentage of the body’s blood that is made up of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. The higher the hematocrit, the more endurance you have. (Mäntyranta had a very high hematocrit.) The paradox of endurance sports is that an athlete can never work as hard as he wants, because if he pushes himself too far his hematocrit will fall. Hamilton had a natural hematocrit of forty-two per cent—which is on the low end of normal. By the third week of the Tour de France, he would be at thirty-six per cent, which meant a six-per-cent decrease in his power—in the force he could apply to his pedals. In a sport where power differentials of a tenth of a per cent can be decisive, this “qualifies as a deal breaker.”

A must-read if you’re at all interested in sports, genetics, and the doping as cheating debate.

This sentence in the concluding paragraph is telling:

It is a vision of sports in which the object of competition is to use science, intelligence, and sheer will to conquer natural difference. 

The Sports Gene and the New Science of Athletic Excellence

Katie Drummond interviews David Epstein, the author of the recently released The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance.

The context is fascinating: whether you’re a gym rat or just starting out with an exercise routine, you typically follow the advice you read in magazines, from friends/coworkers, or personal trainers. But in the future, however, you might be able to develop a training plan that has nothing to do with external edicts, generalized principles, or even trial and error. Instead, you’d be training according to your own genetic athletic profile — a sequence of genes that determine what kind of exercise, done for how long and how often, your body will best respond to.

According to Drummond,

Epstein offers a fascinating look at how genetic research is already transforming sports science. Along the way, he digs into controversial questions about gender and race, examines the latest in genetic testing that purports to spot athletic traits, and unravels how some of the world’s best athletes — from Usain Bolt to Michael Jordan — attained the pinnacle of sporting success.

On to the interview questions:

Q: You don’t shy away from controversial topics in the book, including gender and ethnic differences where athletic ability is concerned. You also mention how scientific progress has been hindered because of concerns about sexism or racism creeping into cultural discussions about findings. To what extent, do you think, have those fears held back research on genetics and athleticism?

A: You know, when I went into the book I figured that scientists worked in bubbles to some extent, and that they didn’t decide what to publish based on any external force. In a sense, that they published their data so long as they maintained academic rigor. But in this field, that hasn’t been the case at all: scientists have literally told me that they have data, really great data, that they won’t publish because of how it might be perceived or construed by the public.

The primary instance of this is related to race. Namely, scientists are concerned that data suggesting that black people are predisposed to some athletic superiority will get wound up into this bigoted misconception that athletic ability means someone lacks intellect. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s been a prejudice for some time, and it has really reached deeply into the psyches of some scientists. Where gender is concerned, I had one researcher who has published a huge amount on sex and gender differences tell me that he didn’t publish any findings until he got tenure, because it just threatened to be too controversial. From my perspective, the best way to move the field forward and to help athletes is to collect sound data and then publish it — I was disappointed to see that this hasn’t happened.

Q: As you point out, the relationship between athletics and genetics is really complicated. But where do you see research going in the future, and what will it mean for athletes — elite or otherwise?

A: It is complicated, but we’re already seeing genetic tests trickling out that can hint at different aspects of someone’s athletic ability. Namely we’re seeing gene tests that relate to injury risk — one example is a test for the ApoE gene, which helps determine your vulnerability to brain damage from the hits you take during boxing or playing football, for example. That test is already out there, and it might really make a difference for athletes, how they compete, and what kind of medical treatment they get.

Where research is concerned, the most progress we’re seeing now is in studies that look at genes related to responses to endurance training — genetic pathways that determine who responds well to cardiovascular exercise, and who doesn’t. That has obvious appeal for athletes, or even people who wish they were athletes: the takeaway is that just because you don’t seem to have this innate, amazing talent, you might have an underlying predisposition to respond much better than you’d expect. The idea of figuring out someone’s training routine based on what they do and don’t respond to is really appealing, and I’d say we’re maybe five or ten years away from getting into that.

And it might also play an important role in personalized medicine: if someone with heart problems can respond well to aerobic activity, then maybe we can prescribe an exercise program instead of medicating them.

Fascinating. I’ve placed The Sports Gene in my to-read queue.

The Rise of the One-Day Contract in Sports

What do Donovan McNabb, Jason Elam, and Hideki Matsui have in common, besides being professional athletes? As this story explains, they’re part of a growing number of players who have signed a one-day contract, typically to close out their careers:

The one-day contract has become a rite of passage for the modern athlete — a select few, anyway — before he retreats from the spotlight. Matsui, a former outfielder who signed his one-day deal Sunday at Yankee Stadium, was treated to an pregame ceremony behind home plate. In his final capacity as a team employee, he was responsible only for throwing out the first pitch. He wore a tie beneath his jersey.

You’d think Jerry Rice would have wanted to get paid for his one day contract:

With his 1989 Super Bowl ring swinging from a chain on his neck, Rice signed a deal for $1,985,806.49, which commemorated his rookie season (1985), his uniform number (80), his retirement year (’06) and the 49ers. The sum was ceremonial, and Rice was not actually paid a cent.

Will Pujols sign a one day contract with the Cardinals? Why didn’t Michael Jordan do the same with the Chicago Bulls?