Sports scheduling

How applying management science expertise keeps everything on track.

We take a closer look at the behind-the-scenes work of Professor Mike Wright, of the Department of Management Science.

Every sporting tournament of any kind needs prior organisation. This takes place at many levels, including personal and team preparation, organisation of facilities, etc. One essential aspect that is common across all sporting competitions at any level is that of scheduling or timetabling. What events are going to take place, when and where? These are questions for the organisers of leagues and tournaments to answer.

It’s not just a case of creating a timetable of matches, or a roster for match officials, that works. It is usually very easy to create timetables and schedules that are physically possible – ensuring that nobody has to be in two places at the same time – but often very hard indeed to produce outcomes that come close to satisfying everybody concerned.

One major cause of difficulty is that there are just so many people involved. For example, a timetable for the English county cricket fixtures – 360 matches in total – will be critically examined by cricket’s central administration (the ECB), the sponsors of each tournament, the televisers, other media and eighteen different clubs. Moreover, within each club there are accountants, marketers, coaches, players and spectators, all of whom will have a different viewpoint. How can these disparate requirements and preferences be synthesised so as even to define what is meant by a good timetable, let alone producing one? It’s not anything simple like maximising profit – many of the criteria cannot be expressed in financial terms at all.

The standard answer is to simplify, approximate and even ignore the more inconvenient concerns until the problem can be neatly defined. Then either a simple package is applied (in the non-academic world) or mathematicians prove theorems about it (in the academic world). Neither approach is much use in practice.

Mike Wright, however, has both the ambition and the know-how to consider all stakeholders’ views – or at least all that are expressed or can be inferred – formulate the problem accordingly and then solve it to produce timetables with which everybody is happy. Not easy, and occasionally impossible, but he has a track record going back more than 20 years with the ECB, not only for timetabling the matches but also for allocating umpires to matches.

Mike adapts well-known algorithmic methods so that they work well for the specific problems faced. Doing this successfully involves a pleasing combination of knowledge, creativity and trial and error. Because the structure of English cricket changes every year, sometimes to a substantial extent, there is a fresh challenge every time, which keeps his enthusiasm forever strong!

He also helps cricket at an amateur level, with two regular clients that use his system for allocating umpires in regional leagues. And it’s not just cricket – he has also been active in New Zealand, scheduling Rugby Union (the national religion) and basketball leagues.

Mike also gets involved at an earlier stage. He doesn’t just schedule matches that follow a particular format; he is also heavily involved in the planning stage. For example, Twenty20 cricket was introduced to the professional English game only after a lot of ‘what-if’ analyses for which Mike’s experience was pivotal.

As feedback from various clients testifies, Mike’s involvement is regarded as vital for the smooth running of the events involved:

  • "From the very earliest starting point to the final publication of the fixture list, Mike's close involvement is essential."
  • "Despite the many challenges with the new format and the condensed window in which it could be played in 2011, the competition was regarded as a great success by all key stakeholders."
  • "(The system) saves a huge amount of time, and contributes greatly to the umpire appointing process."
  • "With the more recent demands of both the clubs and the umpires to cut travelling costs, your programme addressed this situation."