The NFL, MLB and MLS are on schedule, thanks to Vancouver’s Optimal Planning Solutions

Founder Rick Stone helps major sports leagues call the shots on their schedules

The NFL is one of the most-watched sports leagues in the world. It creates billions of dollars for the U.S. economy. Its games are highly coveted events for television advertisers and fans alike (even if you’re just tuning in to catch a glimpse of Taylor Swift). Its schedule is a high-stakes labyrinth: 32 teams play 17 games a year between September and January, not including playoffs. There are millions of dollars at stake in each game. And a Vancouver company puts it all together.

To understand the story of Optimal Planning Solutions, you have to go back to the late 1990s.

Rick Stone, the company’s founder and president, was working on building schedules for the manufacturing industry. As an avid sports fan, he couldn’t help but think he could turn that personal passion into a professional pursuit. He started developing sports scheduling software as a side hustle. The resulting business, Optimal, quickly started working with a few minor leagues.

At the time, the leagues didn’t have specialized scheduling tools. Schedules would be built on whiteboards in meeting rooms or, famously, in the case of the MLB, by a married couple at their kitchen table. The last thing they would want to do, acknowledges Stone, was put the schedule together.

But thanks to what started as that side hustle, sports leagues suddenly had something that made the process borderline appealing. Knowing he had an elite prospect, Stone worked to get his company promoted to the big leagues.

He recalls parsing over NFL press items around schedule release time. Eventually, he found the name of the mastermind behind its game calendar. A call to the NFL switchboard eventually led to an answering machine. A few months later, Stone was on the horn with a league executive.

To this day, cold outreach and word-of-mouth remain the company’s go-to acquisition tactics. “We know who our target audience is,” says Stone. “It’s a lot easier for us to find them than it is for them to find us.” It’s certainly working. In addition to the NFL, Optimal has around 25 leagues on its roster, including Major and Minor League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Women’s Soccer League and the Australian Football League.

It’s doubly impressive when you consider the size of the team. Optimal has just four employees, including its founder and president Stone, whose company is now old enough to rent a car and not pay a young driver fee, is ready to take it to the next level. He’s looking to hire new talent to flesh out the current quartet with developers and programmers as Optimal ramps up its platform. The company is looking to double in size over the next five years as it embarks on this new era.

Optimal has been essentially a consultancy for the majority of its life. The team would meet with leagues and collect data, send back a preliminary schedule and then go back and forth with revisions until it was game-ready. Now, Stone envisions it becoming a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company.

“The new software we’re developing is a lot more intuitive,” explains Stone. “It’s going to be hands-on, it’s going to be web-based. Leagues will be able to log in and, in some cases, completely build the schedule by themselves.”

Optimal will also be embarking on a robust sales and marketing push. “There’s a huge group of leagues that we have to introduce ourselves to,” maintains Stone. “When leagues can do it themselves there is a slightly reduced cost.  The new software will kick up  a much larger base for us to market to.”