TD Tools: Creating a Tournament Schedule

by | December 23, 2011, 8:00am 0

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Creating the perfect tournament schedule is an optimization problem – we want to minimize the schedule stresses (moving fields, multiple byes, etc) subject to various constraints of our team and tournament: number of fields, hours of light, 6 games minimum for each team, number of field sites, competitive balance, teams with early flights, max number of games per day per team (4), min number of games per day per team (2), not scheduling many games during finals, a minimum round time (with built in time for caps and changing fields), etc. It’s ideal that you do much of this before you even decide how many teams to invite to a tournament. If you have four fields and want to host a 20-team tournament, the schedule stresses on each team would be so great that it’s not even worth it.

A quick back of the envelope calculation that every tournament director should do at the beginning stages of planning a tournament: the maximum number of games your field site(s) and hours of light will allow you to host in a given weekend. For a 14-field tournament that could conceivably host games from 8:00 am (a little stressful on teams) to 6:00 pm Saturday and 8:00 am to 4:30 pm Sunday, that’s 6 rounds on Saturday with 100 minutes between the start of each game, then 5 rounds on Sunday. Then you can host 14*(6+5) games at the tournament. If you have flexibility in the number of fields at the tournament, you may want to have 12 regulation-size fields with more space between than packing in 14 fields. Similarly, teams definitely appreciate making rounds a little longer so fewer games go to cap (along with less time spent at the fields – 9:00 am starts are nicer than 8:00 am).

Of course, this is the maximum number of games your tournament can accommodate. Often times, the true number of games is less, especially on Sunday, when prequarters need to come before quarters need to come before semis need to come before finals. Right there, that’s 4 rounds with limited opportunities for byes. So the next step in developing your schedule involves your format options, along with deciding a minimum number of games for each team. In our previous example, we have a max of 154 total games over the weekend. At 6 games minimum per team, that means a maximum of 154/6*2 teams (51.3 in this case), which seems to be leaning towards a 24 team Open and 24 team Womens division. If you want to have finals and only finals during the last round (which helps with teams travel flexibility), that drops to 47.3 teams (maybe a 24 team tournament in one division and 20 in the other). Moving the start time up to 9:00 on both days takes a round off of both days, and now we’re down to 38 teams.

Again, these are maximum numbers of teams, and the actual format constraints and field site constraints can bring this number down further. We’ll look at these now. Generally, if teams need to move between various field sites, they should have a bye between games. Because of that, it’s helpful to schedule an entire pool’s games on the same fields, then have a bye (or 30 min break in schedule) so that teams can move between sites for crossovers or play-in games. This also ties into format constraints – a pool of 6 requires 3 fields to finish in 5 rounds. If there are certain clusters of fields that can only support 2 fields, pools of 6 are not the best idea. However, pools of 5 only need 2 fields to finish in 5 rounds (and each team gets 1 bye). Useful for planning: pools of 4 require 6 games and 2 fields, pools of 5 require 10 games and 2 fields, and pools of 6 require 15 games and 3 fields. There’s a little flexibility here – two pools of 6 require 30 games, so in 6 rounds they only require 5 fields (or six rounds on four fields on Saturday and one round on 6 fields on Sunday morning).

You can also play with your pool setup by having power pools – if there’s a large competitive difference between the top 8-12 teams at a tournament and the bottom set of teams, power pools are sometimes a good option to a) encourage better teams to attend the tournament and b) to get more close games between teams. But be careful with power pools – at tournaments where teams are more evenly matched or seeding is more difficult, power pools provide unnecessary protection for higher-seeded teams and allows teams to back into the Sunday brackets. If you do decide to do power pools, they don’t have to be the same size as the lower pools. Two power pools of 5 and four lower pools of 4 is a pretty good 26-team format.

While a general Saturday format is pretty easy to come up with, the Sunday format may present more headaches in scheduling. Even at high levels (although not at the highest), teams with a 10 am consolation game will likely not stick around for a scheduled 3:30 game, especially if flights are to be made or watching finals looks like a more appealing option. While this is frustrating not only to the tournament director, but also to any opponents who DID stick around, there are things a TD can do to minimize end-of-day bailing. The first is to schedule more consolation early in the morning, with as few byes as possible. Similarly, don’t drag out consolation brackets for four games per team – give teams more games that matter on Saturday or Sunday morning with pool play and/or crossovers, rather than sending teams straight to consolation. Also, if you have the flexibility, try to set up games between teams that have had their prospective opponents bail on them. It generates goodwill with the teams for being accommodating, and it helps teams get their money’s worth (especially if they’re traveling a long distance).

Traditional Sunday bracket play is 3 or 4 rounds of A bracket play, with smaller consolation brackets for 5th-8th place and 9th-12th place (if there were prequarters). With a full round of 16, a 9th-16th place bracket can be played, but teams probably won’t want to play out the entire bracket – 2 games per team in consolation is acceptable. For lower brackets, try to group teams in groups of 4 or 8, ensuring that teams get their 6 game minimum and making sure there aren’t many byes. If you end up without multiples of 4, consolation pool play is an option, as are NFL-playoffs-style 6-team consolation brackets. As I mentioned before, try to minimize byes (especially for consolation brackets) and schedule as few games as possible during the finals. Don’t schedule games after finals.

An extremely helpful tool in the tournament-planning process is an Excel spreadsheet with field numbers across the top and round times along the left side. There you can visually plot out where pool play games go, where games in various consolation brackets fit on Sunday, and make sure that pool games happen on adjacent fields. It takes some playing around to make sure you can fit all of the games in a manner that makes sense, respects the various constraints I’ve discussed, and minimizes the schedule stresses on the teams so they can focus on playing ultimate and having fun. Another thing to think about regarding seeding and formats: use the USAU formats manual to get ideas for how various seeds should be distributed in pools, as well as how different pools’ first and second place teams should match up in the bracket. But be careful to only look at the 1-advance formats (and ignore their consolation brackets); the formats manual is intended to place teams at Sectionals and Regionals, not give the best consolation or bracket matchups for a regular season tournament.

It sounds complicated and complex, but a little work here can drastically reduce the amount of day-of tournament scheduling you do and team complaints you receive. It’s also helpful to print out the game schedule by field (your excel spreadsheet) in addition to the score reporter brackets. A lot of people running tournaments for the first time (or stepping up to larger events) don’t realize the number of things it’s important to take into account when scheduling an event. And with that said, I’m more than happy to discuss formats, schedule, field layouts, and more via email ( Good luck, and happy TDing!


I spoke with Benji Heywood about how often (and at each level) teams play 3, 4, or 5 games in a row, since UK and European tournaments have very different practices and rules. Here’s my email response–\n\nOur youth directives are very different. We have much stricter standards for youth events, see: USA Ultimate Youth Formats Guidelines . I was involved in drafting those guidelines, and I can help you interpret some of the more oddly-phrased requirements there.

Mens Centex has traditionally been a grueling tournament with 4 pools of 6, 5 games straight (to 13) on Saturday and 3 (to 15) on Sunday. Most tournaments try to avoid 5 games in a day (I advocate a 4 game max per day in my article). Middle to high level college teams take rosters of 20-30 players because tournament play is brutal and exhausting. This is also part of why USAU College Championships have so many upsets – teams with a strong 7-10 players can do much better playing 2 games a day, even against 30-man squads of fit players.

3 in a row is common at any tournament at any level (with the exception of HS championship events). 4 in a row is more of a hardship, and there is usually a bye if teams play 4 games in a day, but some teams get the last round or first round bye, which means 4 in a row. But those teams also prefer the first or last round bye. In 12-team tournaments with two pools of 6 (increasingly common), we usually see four games on Saturday per team, then everyone plays 1st round Sunday and then in 3 4-team brackets, for a total of 7 games.

Because travel costs are so great, I think TDs feel pressure to pack in 7-8 games per team per tournament, and on weekends because of school and jobs. That means 3-4 games each day, and when there are 5 or fewer games in a weekend, it’s not worth the money to go to that tournament over a tournament that promises 7 games.

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