Putting together a schedule for a professional sports league is a meticulous and painstaking process. Schedule makers must juggle dozens and dozens of variables with an incalculable number of different combinations. Putting together an NFL schedule might be the least difficult because teams only play sixteen games, and their stadiums are built primarily to host football games. Concerts, award shows, and so on are ancillary to the games the team(s) that play in their respective stadium(s). Same for Major League Baseball, as only the sheer number of games (and the fact that teams play a season’s worth of two, three, or four game series) makes MLB scheduling a little more complex than football.
Examining Quirks in the NBA Schedule
The NBA and NHL might have the most difficult task regarding putting together a viable schedule. Each of those leagues play 82 regular season games, and because the arenas NBA and NHL teams play in can be used for so many other functions, teams must work around different obstacles. This is by no means a complete list, these things change year to year, but it should highlight how travel might be the most underrated variable in our nonstop examination of sports. Some of the more notable obstacles for NBA teams are as follows:
Utah Jazz: No Sunday Home Games
Since the Mormon religion is so prominent in Utah, it should be no surprise that the team’s ownership (originally the late Larry H. Miller, now his widow, Gail Miller) belongs to that faith, and the team has an agreement with the league to honor the Sabbath. Since no other team has such an arrangement, the Jazz can, and do, play road games on Sunday, but no home games. In this regard, it should be no wonder why the Jazz are widely considered to have the toughest schedule year in and year out. Because they play no Sunday home games, the team has shorter home stints than other teams; their home schedule basically operates under a six-day week, or they travel for Sunday. From a scheduling standpoint, this issue makes the Jazz a particularly interesting case-study in how travel and home/away games affect a given team’s performance.
San Antonio Spurs: “The Rodeo Road Trip”
Every year, San Antonio (more specifically, the AT&T Center) hosts the “San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo” in February. Since it takes place in the Spurs’ arena, they must take an extended road-trip every year. For example, this season San Antonio only has three home games during the month of February, and none after February 6th, when they play the Lakers. That means eight consecutive road games (this year it includes: the Heat, Magic, Clippers, Lakers, Suns, Kings, Jazz, and Rockets), before returning home March 2nd for a game against the Pistons. February is probably the best month for this to happen, since it’s the month of the NBA All-Star game and offers the Spurs (and everybody else) some time off for the All-Star break. It also, however, virtually eliminates San Antonio from hosting an All-Star game, unless the rodeo is moved to a different location or date, but that would lead to even more complication. It is also noteworthy that since all teams play 41 home games and 41 away games, this extended road-trip means the Spurs are afforded a couple extended home stints to make up for the “Rodeo Road Trip.” Since a single game was the difference between the second seed and the sixth (which they wound up getting), one must wonder if one more February home game could have helped the Spurs advance further in the playoffs last season.
Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers: Award Show Road Trip
Los Angeles is America’s unofficial home of Show Business (although New York City might dispute that). Being that as it is, the Lakers and Clippers (along with the NHL’s L.A. Kings), are forced on the road while the Grammy Awards take over their arena. Last season was especially taxing on the Clippers, as they drew the short straw of the three teams, and played eight straight road games in thirteen days while the Staples Center hosted other festivities. They went 3-6 during that span, which may have affected their place in the final standings, given how tight the Western Conference ended.
Chicago Bulls: Circus and Ice Show Road Trips
Although this tradition could be coming to an end in the near future, it is still something the Bulls (and Chicago Blackhawks) must work around. This season, the Bulls played four road games over ten days while the “Ringling Bros. Circus” took over the United Center, and went 2-2 in those games. Last season, the Bulls were on the road for seven straight games for the same reason, and managed a 4-3 record during the trip. Also, the United Center plays host to “Disney On Ice,” usually in early February. This year, the show plays from February 4th through the 7th, forcing the arena’s primary tenants to play elsewhere.
As mentioned in the section above, the Bulls share the United Center in Chicago with the NHL’s Blackhawks. This is common all over, and virtually all cities that have both an NBA and NHL team have them share an arena, for good reason: it increases use and efficiency for the arena (i.e.: less nights where the arena sits empty), and creates more local jobs for concession workers and the like. (If this was written a year ago, a section could have been dedicated to the Toronto Raptors, who did not play any Saturday home games to allow the Maple Leafs use of the Air Canada Centre, but that’s no longer the case.)
There are a few that juggle many teams, like the Staples Center in Los Angeles being home to the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers, and NHL’s Kings, and several other teams may share their arena with a college team (like the Milwaukee Bucks do with Marquette).
The Chicago Bulls must also deal with another inconvenience this season, along with other teams, when the NCAA Tournament comes around. Since the tournament rotates venues each season, it affects a lot of teams’ schedule each year. Since hosting “March Madness” is a surefire way to sell out an arena for four days’ worth of games, it’s no surprise that NBA teams must work around the college schedule every March.
Professional basketball players don’t need our sympathy, but these things should be in our conscious when following our favorite teams. Nobody should expect a team’s execution to be perfect when the team is playing a back-to-back and has been on the road for almost two weeks, so examining the schedule should offer fans something in the way of tamping down expectations when these difficulties in the schedule come up. If nothing else, working around these issues should make one pause and appreciate the people on the game operations side and/or the people who are in charge of putting together the schedule; people who rarely, if ever, get the credit they rightfully deserve bringing our favorite sports to us every season.