IT WAS on a bus, slowly snaking towards Ford Field in Detroit for Super Bowl XL, when the AFL was first introduced to a Canadian man who would help solve the annual headache of composing one of the most complex fixtures in world sport.
At the turn of the century, Rick Stone founded sports software company, Optimal Planning Solutions, to help sporting leagues determine who played who and when. Back then, leagues were still constructing fixtures manually by hand or Microsoft Excel.
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The United Hockey League in North America was the first contract Optimal Planning Solutions won. That league is now defunct, but Stone's company provides the software that builds the fixtures for two of the biggest leagues in the world – the National Football League and Major League Baseball – and the two biggest leagues in Australia – the AFL and the NRL.
Tucked away in an office in Vancouver, Stone and his team have been working closely with the AFL's head of broadcast operations and scheduling, Josh Bowler, for the past six weeks, polishing a product that will never shine enough to please everyone.
The introduction of Gather Round last year has extended the home and away season to 24 rounds. All 18 teams play 23 times between mid-March and the end of August for a total of 207 games, before the nine games that matter most in September.
Since meeting former league executive Simon Gorr on that bus in Michigan in 2006, Stone's fingerprints have been all over every AFL fixture since then. He has dealt with a sport that has grown from 16 to 17 and now 18 teams, navigated the introduction of Thursday night football and the evolution of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with the players.
"The software has been around for almost 25 years now. Obviously it has evolved substantially over the last 25 years, but the first prototype was around 1999," Stone told AFL.com.au during a recent visit to AFL House.
"I was doing manufacturing scheduling at the time and it not a big leap from that and optimisation to sports leagues scheduling and optimisation. The software is very similar for all the leagues. But the rules and the priorities are very different for every league.
"We are really guided by the League. It is really Josh [Bowler] that is building the fixture, we just provide the tools for them.
"It really comes down to what their priorities are, and that might change season to season. Obviously you've got standard rules around how many times clubs play home and away, certain opponent rules, and beyond that you get to the real optimisation component and how do we get the best match-ups on TV, how do we provide the right home and away pattern, right travel pattern to make things fair around player safety and welfare."
The guiding principle is to develop a fixture that is as fair as possible, which is complicated by the fact teams don't face each other twice – once at home, once away – like they do in competitions like the English Premier League. It is impossible to gain complete equity. The weighted rule attempts to close the gap with double match-ups based on where a club finished in the previous season, but it isn't perfect.
Before the 2024 fixture was released on Thursday, hundreds of versions were forensically dissected and sent back and forth between Docklands and British Columbia. There are not millions but trillions of combinations at play, although not quite as many as when Stone helps build the NFL's 32-team, 272-game schedule.
The time difference between Melbourne and Vancouver allows for multiple versions to ping either way each day. Bowler will fine tune at least 40 full fixtures until the League is satisfied the 207 games will strike the ideal balance between bums on seats and eyeballs at home.
"The two key KPIs of the fixture are broadcast viewership and attendance. If you think about the fundamentals of our game, the more people who are watching it and going to games, the better the sport is going to be. We have to balance the two," Bowler explained.
"Quite often, if you deliver a really good crowd outcome, like a Saturday afternoon at the 'G, you might not necessarily get the biggest broadcast outcome. Thursday night in the middle of winter between two top teams, you won't get as many people (in the crowd) as another slot but you will rate really well (on television). You have to balance that out across the fixture."
Sitting opposite each other in an office inside AFL House, Stone and Bowler say they only know the fixture is ready when they can't find ways to solve any more problems. It is that kind of process. Problems always emerge and only so many club priorities can be met. The whole process takes at least a month, with Stone flying out to spend time at the AFL's headquarters last month.
Thankfully for Stone, Bowler and their teams, the new CBA has made the task somewhat easier. The AFLPA agreed to a maximum of three five-day breaks from next season, up from one under the current deal. That will allow for more Thursday night football across the life of the new $4.5 billion - $643 million per season – broadcast rights deal that starts in 2025.
"Thursday night footy originally complicated things a few years ago, but with the modification of the five and six-day break rules, it makes it substantially easier now," Stone said.
"I remember five or six years ago when Anzac Day fell on a Wednesday; clubs that were playing on Anzac Day or Anzac Day eve, it might take five or six more rounds before they get on to a Friday night again. The five- and six-day rule changes have made a substantial difference to that."
It has been almost 20 years since that bus ride in Detroit and while the game hasn't expanded into Canada, a Canadian has helped ease the AFL's fixture expansion. One alteration at a time.