Published on September 30, 2008 10:10 PM by dbo.
Creating a schedule every year in the CFL can be a challenge. With eight or nine teams, it can be difficult to keep the schedule interesting and fresh every year while maintaining the traditions demanded by the fans. Add on to these challenges the scheduling needs of the television networks, stadium availability and keeping the schedule fresh for fans year-after-year. The CFL schedule maker has done an effective job in the past few years in introducing new wrinkles to provide balance and a mid-season break for teams. Still, there are a number of areas to consider in order to better position the CFL schedule now and for future expansion, the first being bye weeks.
In an eight team league and eighteen game regular season schedule, the primary challenge in drawing up a schedule outside of broadcaster and stadium availability is keeping things fresh for the fans. In 2007 alternating bye weeks between the East and West divisions were added in late August to provide a break for teams over the gruelling schedule. This results in a nineteen week season spanning from late June to early November in normal years. The current system provides a very balanced and fair schedule, with teams all receiving a bye week at roughly the same time in the season, and four games per week except for the two bye weeks.
Bye weeks are granted just prior to the half way point in the season in consecutive weeks in August. In the first week, one division will play intra-divisional games while the other division has a bye. The following week, the division roles switch. This provides the fairest bye weeks possible, with all teams getting a break at roughly the same time in the season, without shutting the league down for a whole week. Although not necessary in an eight-team league, the bye weeks were continued to provide a break for teams while only adding an additional week to the schedule. The only downside to this bye week system is the league is reduced to two games a week for two weeks at the end of August, reducing the league’s visibility just prior to the stretch run that starts in September.
The difficulties scheduling bye weeks increases with a nine team league, which the CFL has had as recently as 2002-2005 and will have again in the near future. Nine teams does not provide for a balanced schedule (eight opponents but eighteen games) or an even number of teams for a full slate of games each week.
The current bye week system works but can’t be replicated with the addition of a ninth team. It is well noted that with the addition of an Ottawa franchise in 2010 or 2011 bye weeks become more difficult to schedule, and result in undesirable situations like byes for teams in the first and last weeks of the season. You can never please everyone, though, as some are unhappy with the reasonably balanced divisional bye system in place today.
Options for bye weeks are needed for after expansion. I believe it is important to have a plan going in to that scenario so there is no last minute complaints when the schedule is being drafted. The current situation, with divisional bye weeks in August, works with an eight team league. There will likely be a time when the league operates with nine and ten teams. The unbalanced schedule this creates has media and management detractors before a game is even played. The fact is the schedule will not be ideal, but bye weeks will be required. It is possible to provide a schedule without the gruelling two games in five days situations that teams have faced in past schedules.
Bye weeks have existed in the CFL schedule since the advent of the fully interlocking schedule. However, a nine-team league and 16-game schedule provided an easy ‘play each opponent twice in 18 weeks’ (with two bye weeks weeks per team) format. The issue became more complicated with the expansion of the schedule from 16 to 18 games in 1986. This schedule featured 20 weeks and two bye weeks per team. Four games a week times 20 weeks provides only 80 games and with an 81 game schedule (9 teams times 9 home games each) week one had a fifth game, with one team playing twice in five days with a bye week following. The season still started in late June and ended November 9 with the Grey Cup played the last day in November. This 20 week schedule pattern was only used once, as the 1987 schedule had to be revised when the Montreal Alouettes dropped out of the league before the season. The next time there was nine teams in the league was 1993 when Sacramento joined the league. Instead of using the 1986 schedule pattern, the league decided to adopt a 19 week season with a single bye week per team. This required teams to play twice a week once in the first half of the season; in fact Sacramento got their initiation to the league by playing its first two games within three days of each other. For one season when the league contracted to nine teams after U.S. expansion and during the Ottawa Renegade era in 2002 and 2003 the same schedule pattern was used. In 2004 and 2005 the 20 week schedule was revived, with the five game week played in week one in the first year and in week six the next year.
It appears the 20 week schedule is superior. Except for the one five game week where some teams may play two games within five days, the schedule eliminates much of the gruelling schedule that exists in the 19 week schedule. Extending the season by a week is a small trade off for eliminating teams playing games within days instead of the normal week. The game play will benefit from teams being fresher and not having to endure schedules with back-to-back games in 5 days or three games in 12 days. However, there is still a prejudice against the nine team-league schedule, with the 19 week, two games in 3 days stuck in some people’s minds. Some evidence of the options must be laid out so all can see that the best option is being used with the 20 week schedule option.
With ten teams, either the 19 or 20 week schedule can be used. With eleven teams, a 20 week schedule is again preferred. With twelve teams (don’t we all hope Ottawa, Quebec City and two Maritime franchises are added in the next 25 years?) the schedule is similar to the eight team league today and a 19 week schedule can be used.
Until the league expands, the current alternating bye week pattern for an eight team league can be used, but the scheduler should not hesitate to mix it up by splitting the bye weeks across divisions rather than within division lines. There are only three different opponents a team can play during these division bye weeks which can get old fast. By throwing in a year every once and a while where two teams from each division take a bye week together, the matchups will not get so stale.
Once a ninth team is added, the 20 week schedule with two bye weeks per team should be adopted. This will provide four games per week without many multiple game weeks that take a physical tole on teams. The downside is there will be bye weeks in the first or last week of the season, but this is a small price to pay in order to provide a competitive and balanced schedule. With nine teams, there is no way to reproduce the bye weeks that occur a roughly the same time for all teams. Two bye weeks though can be distributed in the first and second half of the seasons, and while not ideal, is better than the 19 week, one bye week system used in the past.
A ten team league has an even number of teams, allowing for an even schedule of five games a week, but an odd number of teams in each division (assuming two 5-team divisions). This does not allow for back-to-back bye weeks like with an eight team league. Instead bye weeks will have to be granted to two teams for five weeks or 4, 4 and 2 teams over three weeks or 6 and 4 teams over two weeks. I prefer splitting the byes over two weeks with a mix of teams across divisions to have a 19 week schedule.
Looking forward to an eleven and twelve team league, the same 19 and 20 week season patterns can be applied. This provides some consistency year-to-year with only two different systems being used. It is important to have the plans for these scenarios in advance and agreement that they are the best solutions for odd and even-teamed seasons.
I enjoy the art of scheduling and creating a great, fair schedule is a immense challenge. The CFL scheduler has done a great job creating a fair and balanced schedule in the past. I believe the evidence shows that the correct scheduling options around bye weeks are being used. The CFL should come out with standard guidelines for the schedule pattern (perhaps better ones than I have outlined) with a league membership of eight to twelve teams to prevent criticism and scheduling trials every year. Consistency in the schedule in these ways provides an appearance of a stable and grounded league.
In my next post, I will review the non-technical aspects of the schedule — building excitement around games to increase the CFL‘s exposure through the season.