It might seem like a no-brainer to pit the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady against “America’s team,” the Dallas Cowboys, in the opening game of the 2021 NFL season. But figuring out the matchups, locations and timing of the other 271 games takes a bit of computing power.
The NFL leverages its partnership with Amazon Web Services to sort through some of the endless scenarios that come into play when figuring out how to match 32 teams across 17 games during an 18-week period, all while optimizing for fairness, travel, and availability of particular venues.
The NFL announced its Week 1 slate of games on Wednesday morning and later this evening will host a special reveal of the remaining games.
AWS already powers the league’s Next Gen Stats — analytics that help broadcasters and fans dive deeper into team and individual player performance. When it comes to scheduling, Amazon says its cloud computing is used to provide predictive analytics for optimizing ratings — whether specific matchups should land on Sunday afternoon, Monday or Thursday nights.
Those analytics also take into account the league’s single-header protection rule, which prohibits one network from airing a game in a market where a home team is currently playing on the other network; the flex policy that moves marquee games into primetime; and more.
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Amazon says that prior to utilizing AWS cloud solutions, “the NFL used to ship servers to their data centers and create ‘rack and stack’ rooms of servers that would require manual configuration and tuning for optimal schedule outputs.”
There are nearly 1 billion options for each team and hundreds of trillions of potential completed NFL schedules overall. AWS allows the NFL to find and analyze thousands of schedules each year that they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
The NFL has built a new schedule scenario every day since Jan. 4, adding new rules and constraints each day in an effort to better inform the search and arrive at their best possible result. The league has analyzed roughly 80,000 finished schedules.
Next time you feel overwhelmed trying to make things work on your personal calendar, consider some some of the many factors that contribute to the complexity of the NFL’s scheduling process:
- There are more than 100 potential stadium conflicts (MLB, MLS, NCAA, high school sports, concerts).
- Minimize the number of teams that play a three-game road trip.
- Minimize the number of teams that play a road game following a road Monday Night Football game.
- Minimize the number of teams that play two road games to start season.
- Minimize the number of teams that play two road games to finish a season.
- No team plays consecutive road games involving cross-country trips unless requested.
- Teams can travel no more than two time zones for the Thursday game.
- All teams playing home Thursday games have limited travel the previous week.
- Two teams must play Thursday of Week 13 after playing Thanksgiving Day.
- Minimize teams that play multiple road games against teams coming off their BYE.
- Accommodate club requests/willingness to host holiday games on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Division series should be well-spaced and spread throughout the season.
- Maximize separation between teams’ BYE week and Thursday game (mini BYE).
- Equal number of games “cross-flex’d” between CBS and FOX.
- Strong Sunday, Monday, and Thursday Night Football Schedule.
- Maximize late-season division games.
- Minimize early season 1 p.m. games for teams with weather concerns.
- Covid-related rescheduling of games and locations.
- Addition of a 17th regular season game for the 2021 season.