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Optimisation in sport Optimal fixture scheduling
10 March 2016
With help from SINTEF, the northern Norwegian company Profixio is aiming to become a world leader in fixture scheduling for handball, football and volleyball tournaments.
The project Sporting recently received NOK 12 million in funding from the Research Council of Norway. The funds will be used to develop a new scheduling optimisation tool for Profixio so that the company will eventually be able to deliver football fixture scheduling in international markets such as the USA and Argentina.
A tough mathematical nut to crack
Every day, thousands of sports organisations, associations, clubs and competition organisers have to schedule fixtures for leagues and tournaments all over the world. Who is playing who, and when? Regulations require that both teams shall have enough of a break between matches, and sponsors are very particular about match scheduling so that they can maximise profits on their advertising.
"Mathematically, this is a tough nut to crack, and presents us with a lot of research challenges", says Tomas Nordlander at SINTEF. "If six teams are taking part in a tournament, there are 720 combinations. With twelve teams this rises to 479,001,600", he says. "In some cases a tournament may have 50 teams, so it goes without saying it's a very time-consuming process, and almost impossible to achieve an optimal solution. Even so, most organisations still resort to manual planning or, at best, poor quality software", says Nordlander.
Norway is one of few countries with a tradition for scheduling fixtures with the help of mathematical optimisation techniques. SINTEF researchers have for many years been assisting the Norwegian Football Association (NFF) with the scheduling of its professional premier and second tier leagues (Tippeligaen and OBOS-ligaen, respectively). Annual fixture lists for the international youth football tournament, the Norway Cup, are also delivered by researchers.
The company Profixio (formerly Spectare) was established in 1998. For many years it developed software to support manual fixture scheduling, and later attempted to develop a scheduling engine to enhance value for its clients. However, after spending a lot of time and money, the company's engineers concluded that they weren't equipped to develop such an engine, and realised that they had to call in more in-depth mathematical expertise.
They contacted the optimisation group at SINTEF's Department of Applied Mathematics, and in 2006 developed an engine called "CupCom". This enabled clients to produce better quality fixture lists using a fraction of the time they spent on manual scheduling. As a result, Profixio was able to expand its markets in Norway and Sweden.
"Since 2006, the new software has been used to schedule about five hundred thousand matches – and more than a hundred thousand just this year", says Ole Kristian Engvoll at Profixio. "CupCom has given us the opportunity to position ourselves as the leading sports scheduling software company in Scandinavia", he says.
However, we need more research-based innovation if we are to grow both in Norway and worldwide and gain access to previously unexploited markets. This is why we joined forces with SINTEF to apply for funding, and we can now get started on further development of the software", says Engvoll.
The company's vision is to become the leading global provider of sports scheduling within the next ten years. It's aim is to use the software to schedule a minimum of 1000 tournaments annually in Norway and Sweden within two years, expand into three major European countries within four years, and become a global leader in sports scheduling by 2020.
"This is why we're developing just the thing we don't have today – fast, high-quality systems combined with a flexible and positive end-user experience", says Nordlander.
"Tournaments are currently the most important source of revenue for Norwegian and Swedish clubs", he says. "Tournament rules require that participants pay a registration fee. Usually a tournament will have between 150 and 200 teams taking part, but in some cases, such as the Norway Cup, there may be as many as between 1500 and 2000. This generates significantly higher revenues", says Engvoll.
Profixio's main business model is thus to establish an extensive network of tournament organisers each carrying out between 95 and 100 per cent of their work without support. This is in contrast to the situation today, in which most end-users require hands-on assistance from the company.
The company is also confident that it can reach out into new markets.
"By supporting new tournament structures such as Swiss Ladder and Knockout, we can help out sports such as table tennis, badminton and paddle tennis, as well as individual sports such as darts and chess. This will open up a significant market in both Spain and South America", says Engvoll.