ESPN has a new “30 for 30″ short video on the scheduling of Major League Baseball. In the video, they outline the story of Henry and Holly Stephenson who provided Major League Baseball with its schedule for twenty-five years. They were eventually supplanted by some people with a computer program. Those people are Doug Bureman, George Nemhauser, Kelly Easton, and me, doing business as “Sports Scheduling Group”.
It was fascinating to hear the story of the Stephensons, and a little heart-breaking to hear them finally losing a job they obviously loved. I have never met Henry or Holly, and they have no reason to think good thoughts about me. But I think an awful lot of them.
I began working on baseball scheduling in 1994, and it took ten years of hard work (first Doug and me, then the four of us) before MLB selected our schedule for play.
Why were we successful in 2004 and not in 1994? At the core, technology changed. The computers we used in 2004 were 1000 times faster than the 1994 computers. And the underlying optimization software was at least 1000 times faster. So technology made us at least one million times faster. And that made all the difference. Since then, computers and algorithms have made us 1000 times faster still. And, in addition, we learned quite a bit about how to best do complicated sports scheduling problems.
Another way to see this is that in 1994, despite my doctorate and my experience and my techniques, I was 1 millionth of the scheduler that the Stephensons were. Henry and Holly Stephenson are truly scheduling savants, able to see patterns that no other human can see. But eventually technological advances overtook them.
More recently, those advances allowed us to provide the 2013 schedule with interleague play in every time slot (due to the odd number of teams in each league), something not attempted before. I am confident that we are now uniquely placed to provide such intricate schedules. But that does not take away from my admiration of the Stephensons: I am in awe of what they could do.