Sports

Sports scheduling requires all the right moves

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The ball teetered on the lip of the 16th hole at Augusta National Golf Club.

It was 2005, and after Tiger Woods' now-famous chip shot fell in for a birdie and Woods went on to win the Masters for the fourth time, Jim Michaelian made a decision.

With Woods' popularity and Tiger-driven television ratings soaring, Michaelian was convinced that the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach should not be run on the same day that the winner of a golf major was being fitted for a green jacket.

"That was sort of the capper," said Michaelian, president and chief executive of the Grand Prix Assn. of Long Beach. "We said, 'We've got to make sure we run on the third weekend of April and avoid it.'"

It was a good plan, but it wasn't foolproof because of another scheduling maxim observed by auto racing promoters: Never run on Easter.

So after seven consecutive years of avoiding it, Sunday's 40th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be run on the final day of the Masters.

Woods is sidelined, recovering from back surgery, but the situation highlights the challenges faced by professional sports leagues, event organizers and promoters as they navigate through a calendar full of potential scheduling conflicts.

"It's like a giant Rubik's Cube," one official said.

Professional sports leagues annually survey their teams for input on dates they would like to play or avoid.

NFL teams play only 16 regular-season games, but the league's popularity makes it a behemoth for other entities attempting to schedule around it, Super Bowl Sunday especially.

The NFL plays the majority of its games on Sundays, but also at least one on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights. Under the terms of the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, the league does not schedule games on Fridays or Saturdays from early September through early December, protecting high school and college football, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

The NFL plays three games on Thanksgiving Day. In 2011, Christmas fell on a Sunday so the majority of games were played on Saturday afternoon with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers kicking off late Christmas night.

For all its scheduling weight, the NFL does not always prevail in conflicts.

In 2004, it began a tradition of having the defending Super Bowl champion host the first game of the season on a Thursday night. However, the 2012 champion Baltimore Ravens opened the season last September at Denver because the Baltimore Orioles, who play at nearby Camden Yards, were scheduled to play an evening baseball game at home.

The league also contends with potential conflicts during the Major League Baseball playoffs. The Oakland Raiders and Oakland Athletics are the only NFL and MLB teams that share a stadium. But several football and baseball teams play in stadiums that are close in proximity and share parking and stadium personnel.

Baseball plays essentially every day of the week, with Mondays and Thursdays generally traveling days that result in a reduced schedule.

Katy Feeney, MLB's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations, said schedule makers attempt to make sure that in August and September at least two weekends are available for NFL games in cities where teams share a stadium or area.

There remain unforeseen issues.

In 1992, the Houston Astros committed the Astrodome to the Republican National Convention, which forced the National League to put the team on the road for nearly a month, Feeney said.

In 2010, the Irish rock band U2 booked many shows into baseball stadiums during the season. The setup and tear-down of the group's elaborate staging necessitated that teams be on the road for two weeks. Then lead singer Bono suffered a back injury, forcing cancellations of several shows. The tour resumed in 2011.

The NBA determines its schedule based on dates submitted by the teams, which often share arenas with NHL teams and host other events. The league's collective bargaining agreement forbids scheduling on Christmas Day unless for nationally televised games, said Matt Winick, the NBA's senior vice president for scheduling and game operations.

The league schedules games on the day of the NCAA men's basketball semifinals but not on the day of the NCAA championship game. "Our teams realize that the focus on basketball on this particular night is on the college game," Winick said.

The NBA schedules a nearly three-week, nine-game road trip for the San Antonio Spurs in February because of a conflict with an annual rodeo and stock show. The Lakers, Clippers and the NHL's Kings all make an annual "Grammy" trip and the Chicago Bulls make a "circus" trip.

The NHL's collective bargaining agreement mandates that no games or practices be scheduled Dec. 24-26, league spokesman Gary Meagher said. Most of the league's United States-based teams do not play on Thanksgiving, either, but the Friday after the holiday carries a heavy schedule.

The league mostly avoids scheduling games on Super Bowl Sunday, though a few teams will play in the early afternoon to make it "just kind of a great sports day, to give hockey fans their fix," Meagher said.

NASCAR and the NBA also typically steer clear of the Super Bowl, although there was one basketball exception this year when the Boston Celtics hosted the Orlando Magic in a game that ended well before kickoff.

In 2011, the date for the 2012 season-opening Daytona 500 was moved back a week, to Feb. 26, to avoid a potential conflict.

NASCAR navigated the NCAA men's basketball Final Four in Texas. A Nationwide Series race was run on Friday and then the Sprint Cup Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth was scheduled for Sunday, thus avoiding a conflict with Saturday's NCAA semifinal games at Arlington. However, a rainout forced the running of the Sprint Cup race to be held Monday — though well before the NCAA championship game.

Sometimes the problem isn't another sport or a conflict with an event at the same venue.

Steve O'Donnell, executive vice president of racing operations for NASCAR, recalled a race at what is now Auto Club Speedway in Fontana that was run on the day of the Academy Awards. "All eyes are focused on Hollywood," he said, adding that a race would not be scheduled again at the track on the same day of the Oscars.

Boxing and Ultimate Fighting Championship promoters largely avoid conflicts because they are careful to watch out for each other.

Boxing promoter Bob Arum said he avoids holidays such as July 4 and Memorial Day and cherishes Las Vegas matchups centered on Cinco de Mayo in May and Mexican Independence Day weekend in September.

Some of UFC's most popular dates are Super Bowl Saturday, Memorial Day, July 4 and Saturday of New Year's weekend, said Pete Dropick, UFC's senior vice president of event development.

"We're just smart about it," he said. "We don't butt heads."

Both are also conscious of other sports.

Arum said "we got blindsided" a few years ago when a bout conflicted with the Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, "which took all the publicity and all the air out of us and the buys."

Arum said he was no longer concerned about competing against baseball but that he considers the college football schedule when making matches.

"You have to watch out that you don't run into some big game where the fans will choose to watch the game for nothing," rather than spend $60 to $70 for pay-to-view, he said.

Dropick said UFC tends to stay away from scheduling bouts on the first two weekends of the NCAA men's basketball tournament and Final Four weekend.

This weekend, Michaelian is expecting a good turnout and audience for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

But he has checked ahead and found that Easter will also fall on the third weekend of April in 2017 and 2019, so the race in those years will probably be run on the final Sunday of the Masters.

No way to predict how Tiger Woods will be feeling on those days.

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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