The Schedule Loss
First of all, I want to wish a happy 3rd birthday to my darling son Brooks. You’re my best buddy!
Now, onto Brad’s whiny soapbox!
Somewhere along the line, prime time TV took over, which is really to say that advertising dollars took over. I’ve been watching sports like a fiend for more than 25 years and I am telling you, it wasn’t always this way. The TV contracts people of the professional sports leagues embraced their own “advanced analytics” and that was that. You have X number of units of product (games) and X number of days to televise them. With this understanding, you neglect hardcore fans—who will always tune in, no matter what time an event takes place—and chase the sheer volume representation of casual fans. Unfortunately, this ideology has given rise to the “schedule loss.” It’s more important today to make sure the TV lineup is competitive than to care for player health or fan convenience or anything else. Ironically this approach actually devalues the product which, as we said already, is finite in supply.
Every league has its schedule quirks and the push to air live sports broadcasts in the most valuable possible time slots has impacted the differently leagues differently so let’s go sport by sport.
Major League Baseball
This is the most grueling schedule, but the least grueling on-field sport. The MLB season packs 162 games into about 180 days. Barring weather delays EVERY team plays EVERY Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday from April to September (except for the All-Star Break). With few exceptions, the entire league plays day games on Sunday and Thursday to allow for travel to the next city. Baseball even has a concept called the “Sunday lineup” meaning that you rest some of your stars and let the younger players get some reps. Catchers never catch a day game after a night game as an unwritten rule. The schedule loss isn’t really a baseball problem because the schedule loss was invented by baseball and we don’t notice it anymore. Baseball is a failure sport. It’s about losing and striking out and NOT getting a hit. The legendary 2001 Seattle Mariners went 116-46—the best single season record modern baseball has seen—and they still lost 46 freaking times. That’s like seven losses every month of an overwhelmingly successful season. Baseball wisdom says that everyone is going to win 50 games and everyone is going to lose 50 games so it’s the remaining  games that distinguish the good teams from the bad. Thanks for inventing the schedule loss and then making us numb to it, baseball.
National Football League
Quite the opposite from baseball is our beloved American football league where playing on consecutive days is absolutely out of the question. For the longest time they only played once per week, but about a decade ago they started having some games on Thursday nights (we’re excluding Thanksgiving Day games from this discussion). Then a few years ago they started playing EVERY Thursday night. Prior to that, the NFL didn’t really do the schedule loss, or at least it was more loosely defined. Teams coming off their bye week had an advantage, but it wasn’t an automatic loss to play a team that had extra rest. With the advent of every week Thursday Night Football, the NFL decided it was fine with scheduling losses for its teams. It seems like I can’t write anything on SportsIntel without mentioning that road teams playing on short rest are at a significant disadvantage. You see what happened to the Dolphins in Baltimore a couple weeks ago? Chalk that one up to the schedule (and horrible quarterbacking). On Thursday Night Football, home teams historically win at a higher rate than in all other games. I don’t think that’s a surprise.
National Basketball Association
With the NBA we’re talking 82 games over about six months. It’s a dense schedule for sure as you need to average about 3.3 games per week to get them all in, but it doesn’t mean you have to play on consecutive nights particularly often. The NBA schedules about 8 to 10 back-to-back’s per team and most of them require changing cities and playing the day after a late night flight (meaning that playing home games on consecutive nights is quite rare). On the surface that doesn’t sound too bad, but think about the actual logistics. Example: You’re the Wizards and you play in Cleveland on Wednesday night which allows you to get to the airport around midnight and to bed around 3am. That leaves about 16 hours before tipoff for your game on Thursday and you may not have slept a wink at that point. That’s pretty demanding and doesn’t leave much time for team meetings, strength training, practices, work with trainers, etc. NBA teams have reacted—especially in the last decade—by resting players or even leaving them home for certain road trips. This obviously sucks for fans because you don’t see the most competitive possible lineup every night, but it’s tough on teams too. This reaction by NBA teams is mostly out of rational self preservation, however, because teams can afford to “forfeit” a few games along the way without compromising the ability to have a successful season. So, over the course of the season, NBA teams simply accept that some losses have been built into the schedule.
National Hockey League
Finally we arrive at the main culprit and the reason that I first set out to write this piece. In terms of schedule implications, hockey really borrows elements from the three sports listed above. Like the NBA, it plays 82 games in about six months. Like football, you really can only sub so much. Regulars always have to be out there because of the way the roster is constructed. Sure you can rest some players, but you don’t have the luxury of resting as many as the NBA or MLB can. Like baseball, you have a position that really doesn’t play back-to-backs. Hockey goalies almost never play two nights in a row. So back in October when I took my family to the Caps game, we were there for a schedule loss. Washington backup net minder Philipp Grubauer has lost all four starts in the second night of back-to-backs this year which finally prompted him to say “I’m f%$&ing sick of losing!” following the most recent defeat. I’m with you, Philipp. I’ve had it with this garbage too. Losing to an opponent is acceptable in sports; it’s simply going to happen. But when you’re getting beat by the schedule, it feels pretty unfair.
I’m calling on the NHL and NBA to do something about this. Fans pay a lot of money for tickets and then have to sit through a diminished on ice/court product because the the human body has limitations. We want to see the best players play at their best and the thirst for additional revenue by profiteering sports leagues frequently takes that away from us. This could best be remedied by trimming some games off the schedule, but of course we can’t rely on the leagues to surrender sure profits for the sake of the fans who pay the bills. And with that we have come full circle on this frustrating side of sports scheduling.
If you have solutions to this problem, please comment below!