Optimization Can Lead to Fairer NFL Schedules

Football Helmets.

The National Football League (NFL) is the highest revenue generating sports league in the world and uses numerous complex rules in scheduling regular season games to maintain fairness, attractiveness and its wide appeal to all fans and franchises.

While these rules balance a majority of the features in the current schedules they are not robust in spacing games to avoid competitive imbalance. Every year, when the precise dates of the upcoming season NFL games are released, several teams believe their schedules lack competitive balance and express their dissatisfaction by raising concerns about the schedule.

In 2013, the Buffalo Bills led the NFL with six games against teams either coming off a Thursday game or a bye from the previous week. Making things worse for the Bills in 2013 was that three of their more-rested opponents were from their own division. Dissatisfied by the Bills' 2013 season schedule, in an interview, the Bills president Russ Brandon said "It's little bit disappointing that we've had six games where teams are coming off a bye or a long week." In line with their president's view, the Bills also raised a complaint against the NFL Scheduling Department on their official website, which received considerable attention from the national media. 

ISE professors Kurt and Karwan, ISE PhD student Niraj Kumar Pandey and 2014 ISE alumni Kyle Cunningham address the competitive imbalance in NFL schedules using mathematical programming and develop an efficient solution approach to generate competitively more appealing schedules. The tests of their method on past and future NFL seasons illustrate how the NFL schedules can be improved for fairness in various dimensions. 

Below is one of the schedules they propose for the 2014 season alternative to the NFL's. The comparison of the features of the schedule below to that of the NFL are left to the self assessment of football fans. Is your team better off or on the edge?

Alternative NFL Schedule