MICHAEL MOYNIHAN: Science at hand to fix GAA schedules

It took me a while but I caught up last week with Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.

Among the gems? How the NFL organised its schedule in the 1950s with one man, Bert Bell, sitting at his kitchen table, slotting dominoes in and out of home-made shelves to represent teams and venues for the entire season.

Now help is at hand, however. Last week, I also caught up with Dr Barry O’Sullivan of UCC, this year’s Science Foundation Ireland Researcher of the Year. The full interview will appear here soon, so consider this a taster.

Barry works in constraint programming and artificial intelligence, areas which can be applied to timetabling and scheduling challenges.

He’s worked with the Irish Navy to hammer out patrolling schedules, for instance, and a pal of his schedules Major League Baseball games.

“Scheduling baseball games is very difficult,” O’Sullivan told me.

“Those teams are on the road all the time, there are long distances - and there are other considerations, not all of them directly sports-based.

“It might sound silly, but in baseball the schedulers are conscious of the people who sell hot dogs and beer in the stadia, for instance, because they’re obviously reliant on having games there for their livelihood. It wouldn’t be much help to them if the team is on the road for too long.”

Okay, but what about real scheduling problems? Like, a county GAA championship schedule? O’Sullivan was confident enough to take that as a challenge.

“In GAA terms, people are obviously able to schedule games, because competitions are run off on time and so on, but other factors could be brought to bear that might be worth looking at.

“Building a schedule that would be more efficient in terms of the use of resources, fairer to the players in that they’d get more rest, fairer in where the games take place - there’d be an element of robustness needed as well in case the weather or a strike intervened and games are postponed.

“We’d build a schedule robust enough so that those events wouldn’t have an adverse impact.

“Even though people are very skilled at scheduling sports games, the number of possible outcomes can be just too hard to deal with. Often people start with a schedule and only fix it if it’s broken, but while there are a lot of other things one might want the schedule to satisfy, the sheer number of those possibilities make that very difficult for a human being to handle.

“It’s not that the people doing the scheduling are less bright than us, but we can build software that can just consider more choices.”

You realise, of course, that this means every GAA official maddened by fixture-fixing from Cork to Antrim will now get on the phone with their particular issues . ..

“It’d be brilliant if they did, because as a scientist I’m always interested in looking at real-world problems — and whether there are things that can be thrown up, in dealing with these problems, that are interesting from a scientific angle.

“We’d be very happy to talk to anyone about these problems, precisely because they are hard.

“One of the post-doc students who left recently was involved in scheduling the experiments on the Rosetta craft which landed on a comet recently, so we’d feel we can schedule anything.”

County secretaries, you have nothing to lose but your chains.

Adding up Castro’s sporting impact

Fidel Castro made it to 90 before passing away last week, which would probably have surprised the members of the US establishment who devoted so much time to devising ways to bump him off as far back as the early 60s.

You’re probably aware of the Bay of Pigs, a US-backed invasion of Cuba which ended in disaster, but there were all sorts of crackpot schemes to poison his cigars and so forth.

You may be aware of the sports tinge to the Castro tale — that the Cuban was nearly signed by an American professional baseball team, the Washington Senators, in the early 50s: if he had, how different would the history of that part of the world have been?

Not very different, it appears. The Society for American Baseball Research did a fair job of debunking the Castro as star baseball prospect legend a few months ago, drilling down into the story to find holes and gaps everywhere. He didn’t make the Havana University team, never mind popping up as a prospect for the pro game in the States.

Which isn’t to say he didn’t have an impact on sport. State-sponsored sport always had a high profile in Cuba: if you’re of a certain age you remember Teófilo Stevenson, the boxer who, along with Felix Savon and Laszlo Papp, is one of the three men to win three boxing golds. There was a time when one of the sharpest debates in sport was whether Stevenson could beat Muhammad Ali.

Data-driven to success

Regarding the Michael MacCambridge book cited elsewhere, there are any number of gems in it. The primacy of data in sport? MacCambridge identifies the NFL club which spent hundreds of thousands on computer-aided statistical analysis in the 60s (and reaped the rewards in the 70s).

He also refers to Bill Polian, who had a choice of Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf as a quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. Leaf was higher rated but Pollen watched every one of the players’ college passes on video (over 1,500 for Manning, almost 900 by Leaf) before slowing the film down to see Manning throwing the ball with more revolutions per second and was a better passer. Preparation, preparation.

Page-turners for your Christmas list

I won’t even pretend to be neutral about the best sports book you can buy for Christmas. That would be insulting your intelligence. The Ken McGrath biography now on the shelves is the (cut for reasons of general sanity - ed.) As another stocking filler, try Barbarian Days by William Finnegan. One of the New Yorker’s best on war and economics, Finnegan’s meandering, discursive memoir of surfing around the world was a highlight for this reader.

More urgent, though no less enjoyable, Eat Sweat Play: How Sport can Change Our Lives by Anna Kessel dissects outdated attitudes which are unfortunately still pervasive.

Three good ones, folks. I approve this message.

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