Decoding the NFL Schedule: A Comprehensive Guide to How it Gets Made

How Does the NFL Schedule Get Made? Everything You Need To Know About the Process


The NFL schedule release is done every May. The process of creating the NFL’s Cinematic Universe (NCU is what I affectionately call it) is essentially the multiverse of madness right up until the final version is selected. Thousands upon thousands of alternate versions are created. These versions try to account for multiple different outcomes.

Everything from player movement (ahem, Aaron Rodgers and Lamar Jackson) to whether or not the Twisted Sister reunion tour is going to interfere with a Week 6 home game in Cleveland needs to be considered. The NFL is the ultimate in reality TV, and they want to maximize every possible storyline they can to make each season more exciting than the last. This is how they do it.

Creating the NFL Schedule

The NFL schedule makers largely loom in the shadows for 11 months out of the year. Once a year, however, the spotlight is shined upon them. Their names are not household names, and they’re often overlooked.

In order, this panel is identified as Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz, Senior Director of Broadcasting Blake Jones, Director of Broadcasting Charlotte Carey, Vice President of Broadcasting Michael North, Vice President of Broadcasting Onnie Bose, and Broadcasting Manager Nick Cooney. They all share a common theme in their titles: Broadcasting.

Make no mistake, the NFL schedule is designed with what makes for compelling television in mind. Now, many of us who have watched Thursday Night Football the last few years may find this claim dubious, but nevertheless, the broadcast is what matters. Across 18 weeks, 272 games are decided to consider, above all else, what will have the fans begging for more.

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According to the NFL’s operations page, “the schedule makers will have to work around events that are already scheduled to take place in or near NFL stadiums — events that may compete with the games, put undue stress on the playing surface, or create traffic or logistical nightmares. The league begins collecting information from the clubs in January about any events that may create scheduling conflicts.”

On top of that, they must also adhere to their own internal formula to ensure every team plays each of the other 31 over a four-year period. That formula is why we have the intra-conference rotation, in-conference rotation, etc.

To account for all of this, the NFL schedule panel employs the use of thousands of cloud-based computers to produce thousands of possible schedules, or, variants. From there, they must select the best one.

Rodgers to the Jets getting done makes it more likely we see the Jets in prime time. Jackson returning to Baltimore likely ensures the same for them. They have to determine if Josh Allen vs. Rodgers or Josh Allen vs. Tua Tagovailoa is better for viewing consumption. Do you want Prime Batman or Earth-2 Batman?

How Are the International Games Decided?

International games were added to the NFL schedule in 2007 and have only gotten more and more frequent, and popular. Starting in London, but since adding Mexico City and Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt, the NFL’s International Series is a critical factor for the schedule makers to consider.

Think of all of the logistical issues they need to deal with in each of the 32 team cities. Now, add in three or more international cities which have local and national governments, customs issues, foreign sports leagues, etc.

The NFL ensures each of its teams play abroad once every eight years. Additionally, any NFL team can volunteer to spend one of their home games on the NFL schedule abroad. Given the enhanced logistical considerations, the NFL schedule makers must try to get the international games set early on in the process and then build the rest of the NFL multiverse around that. This includes trying to build three-week buffers for the teams involved to limit the burdens of travel.

Why Did the NFL Start Playing 17 Games?

Money. It truly is that simple. The NFL schedule makers have done such a good job in recent years creating an increasing demand that they knew an increased supply could be lucrative. Despite player objections due to legitimate health and safety concerns, the NFL added a 17th game because, ultimately, the fans will watch it. The truth is, there will eventually be an 18th game for the exact same reasons.

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Now, the added game has impacted the formula for making the NFL schedule. For example, built in now is that the conferences will trade which one is playing an extra home game vs. an extra away game. For the first time since the 1940s (with the exception of strike-shortened years), the NFL has to contend with that inequity and an alternating trade-off is their chosen path.