Scheduling A Youth Sports Tournament

If you've ever scheduled a youth sports tournament, you know it's not that simple. All teams like to have their coaches with them, but when coaches have multiple teams in the same tournament, it gets complicated fast. It can sometimes be overwhelming. Here's a look at the math behind it. But if you are scheduling a tournament anyway, below are some pointers that you may find helpful.

Which games should you schedule first?

August 20, 2023 By Lori@Universal

Once you have all the games created for your tournament, you have to schedule them (put them on the calendar). Say you have 250 games to schedule on Saturday, where do you start? Anyone who has never scheduled a tournament before, might think it doesn't really matter. And how wrong would they be.

The answer to that question comes from part science, and part experience. Theoretically, you could take a few different approaches. Start with the teams that are the most difficult to schedule, or the coaches. Schedule all their games, and then move to the next one.

In our experience, we have found that the best strategy is to schedule one division at a time. And the order that you pick the division is based on the complexity of scheduling that division. That complexity could come from a variety of factors (based on your own judgement). For example, we believe bigger divisions (say 8 teams) are generally harder to schedule than smaller divisions (say 4 teams). Similarly, divisions with more coaches that coach multiple teams are harder to schedule. Or divisions that have time requests you want to honor (say high school kids taking SATs on Saturday morning) are harder.

No matter your criteria, we recommend (and practice ourselves) that you schedule one division at a time. Otherwise it can get very hard to keep track of the amount of break time between games for a team, or basic sanity checks like - playoffs come after group games.

How many games are there in a tournament?

August 20, 2023 By Lori@Universal

Once you've created all the divisions for your tournament, you have to "create" games. Any tournament software you're using would usually let you create games consistent with your tournament rules. For example, a 4 team division may be setup such that each team plays one game against everyone else, and then the top two teams play in the finals.

Once you create all the games, your next step would be to put them on the calendar. But before you start to schedule, you might wonder - "Did I create all the games I needed to create?". That's a very good question to ask, because the answer might be - "No".

So, how can you tell? Here's a simple thumb rule for the most popular tournament formats. If every team is playing 4 games (2 on Saturday, 2 on Sunday), then the total number of games on each day has to be the same as the number of teams. For example, if 100 teams are playing, then on Saturday you need to see 100 games and same on Sunday. Not 1 more, not 1 less (unless of course you move some games to Friday afternoon - but you can adjust for that).

If your tournament offers 3 minimum games, and a possible 4th, then the same thumb rule applies to your Saturday games. 100 teams means 100 games on Saturday. Sunday's number would be lower and the exact number is a little more involved calculation (you'll need to look at how many divisions do you have of a given size, and how many games that sized divisions should be playing)

What if your tournament offers exactly 3 games? The calculation is just as easy. You multiply the total number of teams, with 1.5. That is your total number of games over the weekend. So, 100 teams means 150 games over the weekend (the split between Saturday and Sunday is a little arbitrary in those cases, and not particularly relevant).

The benefit of aligning start times

August 19, 2023 By Lori@Universal

Most tournaments try to accommodate up to 3 teams per coach. Let's take an example of a tournament where games start at top of the hour, and a coach has 3 teams playing in the tournaments. Each team plays 2 games per day. No team should be playing back to back games. These teams are different ages, so they play on separate fields but they're all on the same location.

As you can see below, handling 3 teams for a coach is pretty straightforward in this scenario. You have plenty of flexibility to accommodate coaching conflicts for the opponents, and if you wanted to you could easily fit a 4th team as well. And a 5th.

8 AM 9 AM 10 AM 11 AM 12 PM 1 PM 2 PM 3 PM 4 PM 5 PM
Field 1 #1 #3
Field 2 #2 #4
Field 3 #5 #6

Or you could do something more compact like this:
8 AM 9 AM 10 AM 11 AM 12 PM 1 PM 2 PM 3 PM 4 PM 5 PM
Field 1 #1 #3
Field 2 #2 #4
Field 3 #5 #6

Let's look at the same scenario but with one minor change. Games start every 60 minutes, 65 minutes and 70 minutes for the three age groups. What happened? Not only the flexibility is gone, but you're not even done by 6pm!
8 AM 9 AM 10 AM 11 AM 12 PM 1 PM 2 PM 3 PM 4 PM 5 PM 6 PM
Field 1 #1 #3
Field 2 #2 #4
Field 3 #5 #6

Now, you could get a little creative and do something like this. It's a little more compact, but look at the teams' experience. Everyone is waiting 3 hours between their games. And if any of these fields was in a different location, it only gets worse.
8 AM 9 AM 10 AM 11 AM 12 PM 1 PM 2 PM 3 PM 4 PM 5 PM 6 PM
Field 1 #1 #3
Field 2 #2 #4
Field 3 #5 #6

Of course, aligning start times is not a free lunch. To achieve that you would probably need to reduce the number of games the youngest age group could play in a day. However, when you're looking to get as many coaches be with their teams in the tournament as possible, aligned start times can be a powerful ally.

How many teams can your tournament accomodate?

August 19, 2023 By Lori@Universal

One of the first scheduling questions that tournament organizers have to reckon with is, just how many teams should they register given the number of fields they have. The answer can be pretty straightforward, and complicated at the same time.

Let's look at a simple example where you have a 9v9 field, where games start at the top of the hour. The first game starts at 8am, and the last game needs to end by 6pm. Basically, this field can handle 10 games per day.

Minimum 3 games guaranteed
How many teams does that translate into depends on the tournament format. The most common formats we come across are - "everyone plays 4 games - 2 on Saturday, 2 on Sunday", or "everyone plays at least 3 games, with a possible 4th". Both of these formats require teams to play exactly 2 games on Saturday. The answer to our question then becomes 10 - the same as the number of games the field can accommodate in 1 day. So, if you have 10 similar fields, you can handle 100 teams.

10 teams per field is a theoretical maximum in this scenario. Should you actually register 100 teams with 10 fields? Probably not. Because you will have very little flexibility to accommodate coaching conflicts. But 98 teams is quite doable.

If you're curious, here's how the math works. After every game, 2 teams get to play 1 game each. After 10 games, 20 teams play 1 game each - which is the same as 10 teams get to play 2 games each. Basically the math is (10 x 2 / 2).

Exactly 3 games per team
Now let's look at the same field, but a different tournament format. Every team gets to play exactly 3 games over the weekend. With that format, as an organizer you have the flexibility to get the team to play either 2 games on Saturday or 2 on Sunday. So, this is how the math works. 10 x 2 x 2 / 3. That's 10 games per day, times 2 days, times 2 teams per game = 40 teams playing 1 game each. Since we want everyone playing 3 games each, you divide the total by 3. Since 40 / 3 = 13.3, you have to round it down to 13. Now there's another wrinkle. The total number of team games cannot be an odd number. So 13 teams cannot play exactly 3 games each (remember every game has 2 teams). You can either have 12 teams play 3 games each, or 13 teams play 3 games generally, but one of them plays a 4th game.

So, basically going from a 3 games minimum (with a possible 4th game) to exactly 3 games format, gives you the ability to handle 33% more teams at your tournament. Of course you have to balance that with the experience that your participating teams want from the tournament.

Dividing into divisions

August 8, 2023 By Lori@Universal

In any large tournament, the first step is to divide the teams into flights (aka divisions). You may have 12 U9 Boys teams with varying degrees of abilities. You divide them into groups of somewhat similar abilities. How you do that is a matter of judgement.
The question we want to help you answer is, how many teams should there be in a division? Here are the options, and our views on each

  • 4 team divisions: It's the smallest viable division. Each team plays one game against each other. After the 3 games, you can have #1 play against #2 for the finals. If you've promised every team 4 games, then you would also have a consolation game. We only like to form 4 team divisions when there's no choice. That's because the fourth game is between teams that have already played each other. It could even be on the same day. It's not particularly exciting for the athletes or the parents
  • 5 team divisions: One of our favorite division sizes, if not the most favorite. Every team plays every other team once. The winner gets decided on points. An added benefit is that the teams know exactly who they're playing and when. If you're a parent, it's easier to plan your day around the schedule. One potential downside is that there is no "final" game, which some find very exciting
  • 6 team divisions: The most popular way of scheduling a 6 team division is by dividing them into two brackets. Every team in one bracket plays a game against every team in the other bracket. You now have 3 group games per team. The final is between the overall #1 and #2 teams. One downside is that the final can end up between teams that have already played against each other. Another option is to have the team play round robin. Every team plays 4 other teams within the division. You don't get a final, but the teams get to play 4 different games. One downside with that approach is that the two top teams could end up not playing each other at all, and may feel disappointed when one of them is declared a winner on points
  • 7 team divisions: 7 team divisions are hard to handle. It would be wonderful if they could all play 3 games against each other, and the top two teams go to finals. Except that math doesn't allow it. You could have them play 2 games against each other, send top 4 into semi-finals and have the bottom 3 play either other for 2 consolation games. That can feel a little unfulfilling because whether you move to the semi finals or not depends partly on who you ended up playing the first two games against. And two teams could end up playing each other twice. Another option is to have them play round robin with 4 distinct games. The downside of that approach is that you could end up having ties since not everyone gets to play everyone else. Overall it's a beast that you put together because you have to
  • 8 team divisions: These are probably the most elegant structures. If you were running an invitation only tournament, you would want only 8 team divisions. You divide them into two groups. Everyone plays 3 games within their group and the top team from each group goes into finals. You could have second, third and fourth placed teams also play against each other if that's what the tournament promises. No one plays the same team twice, you get the excitement of making it to the finals if you do, and overall it seems a fair setup because if you win the final you are really the best team out of the 8
  • 9 or more teams: If there are 9 teams, we like to break them into a groups of 5 and 4. Same with higher number of teams

Math behind scheduling

August 8, 2023 By Tim@Universal

For the nerds among us, here are some numbers to give you a sense of just how complicated scheduling a youth sports tournament can be. We frequently come across soccer tournaments with 300 teams playing over a weekend, but to keep the math simple let's say it is a 100 team tournament that is being played on 10 fields (pitches if you like). A common format is to have each team play 4 games over 1 weekend. So you would have 200 games total (100 on each day).

The not smart way for a computer to solve this problem is by putting games on the schedule and checking if the coaching constraints are satisfied. If not, then move the games around. And keep checking until you find a schedule that works. It's a brute force method.

So, how many options are there for a 100 team tournament? If you remember your high school math, you know the number is 100 factorial for each day. Which is about 1 followed by 90 zeros.

An average home PC can evaluate about a hundred thousand options per second. Let's say a super efficient program on a good computer can evaluate 1 million options per second. And you had all the computing power of Google available to you (about 10 million such computers). How long would it take all those computers working together to schedule the tournament?

About 1077 seconds. Which is much much more than the age of the universe, which is only about 1020 seconds!

So if you've ever tried to schedule a youth sports tournament and got overwhelmed, don't despair. It's a tough problem to solve.