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How is the NFL schedule made?
Each year, the NFL schedule is released after months (not days or weeks) of work. The league begins collecting info from teams in January about any events — concerts, other sporting events, etc. — that could create scheduling conflicts.
After the previous season's Super Bowl, Goodell is briefed on the targets for which the NFL schedule-makers are aiming. For example, Goodell likely was told early in the process that the league would look to open the 2019 season with a historically relevant game like Packers at Bears, not the tradition of the Super Bowl champions hosting the Thursday-night season opener, as the NFL celebrates its 100th season.
The leaders of the schedule-making process are NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz, senior director of broadcasting Blake Jones, senior manager of broadcasting Charlotte Carey and senior director of broadcasting Michael North. The common denominator in those titles — "broadcasting" — is key, because nationally televised, primetime games are more or less the starting point for each NFL schedule.
Two years ago, upon the release of that year's NFL schedule, North was a guest on ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter's podcast. North detailed the NFL's schedule-making process, beginning with an analogy.
Here is North's explanation of the process, via The Adam Schefter Podcast:
"I liken it to a beach, with billions of grains of sand on that beach. And we’re looking for the best grain of sand. The best thing you can do is put as many people as you can on that beach, all looking in slightly different places on that beach, for something that resembles this supposed perfect, mythical, magical grain of sand. And if somebody’s getting close, then maybe that guy says to all his buddies, ‘Hey, I think I’m close. I’m in the right spot. Let’s get some more people over here.' And so then you're pulling people off of the spot on the beach where they don’t think they’re making any progress, and let’s all look over here for a little while, and maybe dig a little deeper.
"The more computers we have, the more schedules we find, and we try to look through as many of them as we can. Some of them die a quick death. You look at it and you see a three-game road trip for a team and you say to yourself, ‘Absolutely not. I refuse to call that owner with that schedule.’ Throw it in the garbage. Or, ‘I don’t like that particular Monday Night Football game in that stadium on that week. So don’t show that to me again.’ And, ‘That team really asked for something specific in Weeks 3-4-5, and this schedule doesn’t give it to them, and I’d like to try to accommodate that, so let’s see if we can’t do that.
"And so every day we come in in the morning, evaluate the schedules that the computers churned out overnight, find six or eight or 10 decent schedules, and then look through them, top to bottom, right to left, as though we were the general manager of each of the 32 teams, and as though we were the president of each of our five television networks. Try to find the things that are the worst things about the schedule, and then write rules to prevent those things from happening in the next run — basically re-defining that grain of sand you’re now looking for, and then re-deploy all your people out on the beach again, now with new marching orders. 'This is now the grain of sand you’re looking for. Go.'
"Because the solution space is so large, you can’t solve the puzzle from a blank piece of paper. You can’t say to the computer, ‘Here’s zero games locked in — go.' That will take all the computers in the world and all the years of our lifetimes to find the mythical, magical, perfect schedule.
"What we do is we build partial schedules, generally built around the primetime schedule. Those are our most constrained games. They’re our most-watched games. And so what we do is we build partial schedules. Here's a Sunday night schedule plus a Thursday night schedule. Here’s a Sunday night schedule plus a Monday night schedule. Here’s the Fox and CBS double-headers, plus the second-half Thursday night schedule, plus the first-half Monday night schedule. Stuff like that.
"So you build 30-, 40-, 50-game partial schedules, and you kind of evaluate those first. ‘If this schedule can finish, would we play it?’ We surely build millions of those partial schedules, not all of them finished. You lay in 50, you don’t know if you can lay in the other 206 until you actually start searching, so we literally build millions of these partial schedules.
"As far as finished, completed, legal, playable NFL schedules? Somewhere probably north of about 50,000. And then of those, maybe 500 advance to the stage where, ‘Hey let’s print it out on a piece of paper; let’s hang it on the wall, and let’s give it a thorough look.’ And it’s not, ‘Are we going to play this schedule,’ than, ‘What about this schedule do we want to fix as we move forward?’"
For more information from the NFL on its schedule-making process, including factors like flex scheduling and international games, an explainer is available here.