Michigan State Staffer’s Scheduling Biz Pushes Seven Figures in Revenue

From the annals of, “One man’s problem is another man’s opportunity,” comes the story of Kevin Pauga, who has capitalized perhaps as much as any one individual from college sports’ scheduling headache.

Pauga, Michigan State’s associate athletic director, is the brains behind Faktor, a sports scheduling platform borne of Pauga’s lifelong interest in solving logistical puzzles.

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Already complicated, scheduling has become even more of an enigma in recent years, between the interruptions of COVID-19, the geographic expansion of conferences through realignment, the multiplying interests of television and streaming networks, and the empowerment of college athletes.

To piece together these competing interests, Faktor uses an algorithm to churn out different scheduling options for leagues.

Pauga originally began the project a decade ago to inform MSU’s non-conference basketball scheduling needs. In 2015, he offered to assist the Big Ten for free with its women’s volleyball slate, in light of the challenges presented by Rutgers and Maryland joining the conference the year before. Within a few years, he began doing paid scheduling projects for the Big Ten, as word got around to other leagues.

Catapulted by the pandemic, Faktor now contracts with about two-thirds of Division I conferences, according to Pauga, in addition to several D-II and D-III conferences. Under the umbrella of a related company, Optimal Schedules, Pauga has also ventured into the pro ranks, with clients that include the NFL.

Collectively, Pauga says, his scheduling work generates close to $1 million in annual revenue, though it is unclear exactly how much of this he pockets. Pauga received a $100,000 payment last year from Optimal Schedules, according to his athletic department financial disclosures. (Corporate state filings list the president of Optimal Schedules as Vinaya Sharma, an Illinois-based actuary.)

In any case, Pauga’s Optimal Schedules remittance was nearly as much as his Michigan State compensation ($113,913 annually), for a full-time job that runs the gamut of athletic department logistics concerns, from team air charters to season ticket-holder preferred parking allocations.

“I wouldn’t say he invented (the position), but if you look at the different kinds of things he does, it is something that is unique to him,” said MSU Spartans communications director Matthew Lawson, who has known the 41-year-old Pauga since the latter was an MSU undergrad. “If he would leave, I don’t envision there would be somebody coming in and filling that spot.”

For now, Pauga doesn’t seem interested in leaving the campus to pursue schedule consulting full-time. And he hasn’t so far been made to choose.

Striking a Balance

The very nature of the cloud computing behind Faktor is that it never stops, even when Pauga is asleep or otherwise indisposed. Like, for example, this week, when Pauga is in Minneapolis, accompanying Michigan State’s men’s basketball team at the Big Ten tournament. MSU plays its first-round game against Minnesota Thursday at noon ET.

While Pauga is rooting on the Spartans from his seat in the Target Center, Faktor will be churning out schedule possibilities for his various conference clients at a rate of about 24 per week. That is what the business world likes to call synergy.

“I am very mindful of needing to be able to balance the two in the current iteration of what my Michigan State responsibilities are as well as the success that has grown the last few years,” Pauga said. “It is something I am mindful of and intentional about making sure my integrity is at the forefront.”

To that point, what about potential conflicts of interest involved in a Michigan State staffer advising the school’s conference on which teams should play what other teams and when? While multiple league sources say there’s been some faint, background grumblings over the years, none have materialized in any kind of formal complaint to the Big Ten.

“The conference has the final say,” Pauga said. “I am providing multiple options, but I am not the decision maker—whether it is the Big Ten or any other conference. In addition, it is incumbent upon me to be transparent and work at a level that they don’t question. … Frankly, if there were schedules that didn’t meet the smell test, it wouldn’t have gotten this far. I wouldn’t have earned the level of trust I have from people.”

Big Ten chief operating officer Kerry Kenny is one to sing Pauga’s praises.

“At the end of the day, he is just a really brilliant individual who does good work and is easy to work with,” Kenny said. Of all the Big Ten’s third-party relationships, Kenny says Faktor is perhaps its most encompassing, as it is the league’s only contractor directly involved in each men’s and women’s sport.

“Scheduling is a math problem,” Kenny said. “He is able to take these complex issues and break them down in a way that is easy to digest and understand.”

Pauga declined to specify the specific financial terms of his Big Ten deal, but said that for major conferences, he typically charges an annual flat fee in the low six figures.

Finger on the Index

After graduating from MSU in 2004, Pauga spent four years working under head coach Tom Izzo as the basketball team’s video coordinator. In 2008, Pauga returned to his home state of Illinois to work at the Big Ten, serving as a special assistant doing data projects for then-commissioner Jim Delaney. Kenny, who was a conference intern at that time, recalled bonding with Pauga over their shared interest in sport-nerd hypotheticals, like whether the 1979 Michigan State Spartans would beat the 1992 Duke Blue Devils.

Beginning in the aughts, the Big Ten began enlisting outside help from Sports Scheduling Group, one of the first such firms to work in the intercollegiate space. SSG and its main competitor, Denver-based Bortz Media & Sports Group, have both gotten out of the niche industry in recent years, with Bortz recently handing its college business off to, a scheduling technology that currently contracts with the Big East and SEC.

Less than a year into his stint in the league office, Pauga returned to Michigan State to take the job as men’s basketball operations director.

Prior to his scheduling exploits, the MSU staffer had another sports-analytical claim to fame: a college basketball advanced metric system, the Kevin Pauga Index, which he began toying with between his sophomore and junior years.

“If I knew anybody was going to care about it, I would have named it something way cooler,” Pauga said.

Unlike two other well-known, eponymous metric systems, KenPom and Sagarin, which are meant to be predictive, the KPI looks retrospectively at a team’s performance by attempting to determine what constituted their good wins and bad losses. By the 2010s, the KPI had gained a cult-like following and Pauga a national reputation as an expert in NCAA analytics.

Ahead of the 2017-18 season, the NCAA began including the KPI among five other metrics it provided to the committee tasked with determining bids and seeding for the men’s basketball tournament.

The Pain Game

Just as the KPI system tries to determine the value of a team’s wins and losses, based on a whole host of inputs, Pauga’s scheduling algorithm determines when is the best time or worst time for two conference members to square off—based on a whole host of inputs. The latter includes such concerns as faculty conflicts and television preferences and holiday breaks. He ranks his schedules in categories of “feasible, “playable” and optimal.”

Over Zoom, Pauga showed Sportico a mock version of the kind of standard scheduling matrix he would use for a conference sport season. It is built as a logarithmic scale with different point penalties for various outcomes. For example, there’s a 99-point penalty if a schedule makes any team play three consecutive weekends on the road.

In order to achieve the “feasible” threshold, a draft schedule would have to address 37 non-negotiable parameters. After that, it’s a matter of how best to solve for any number of what Pauga calls “pain points,” much of which incorporates travel distance and missed class time.

The Big Ten, for example, tries to avoid having basketball teams play more than five conference games within a span of 16 days.

Depending on the league and the sport, minimizing travel costs can also weigh in.

Pauga is in frequent dialogue with conference offices and scheduling committees and feels like much of his effort goes toward “trying to program minds” of coaches and administrators to give him feedback that can further optimize the algorithm.

Pauga is by no means the first Big Ten school athletic administrator to work a side gig. Michael Cross, the current commissioner of the Southern Conference, previously served as Penn State’s assistant AD for new business. While in that position, Cross and his wife operated a survey tool and analytics platform, Athlete Viewpoint, which did business with a number of college athletic departments, including several within the conference.

Rather than presenting a conflict, Kenny thinks Pauga’s active duties in a college athletic department is what makes Faktor especially useful.

“There are things that go into schedules that are contractual and rigid, but then there are all these nebulous parameters: What do coaches and administrators and ticket people prefer?” Kenny said. “At Michigan State, he is working with those kinds of people to understand how their worlds work.”

As much as the work comes down to mathematics, there’s been a crucial language component to it as well.

“I like to think that maybe one skill set I have is that I can speak ‘coach’ based on my background with the team and school side, and I also can speak math,” Pauga said. “And those are two skill sets that don’t typically cross over. The ability to translate between the two [domains] is something that folks have found valuable as this whole thing has evolved.”

Puzzle Pieces

Though Pauga had been steadily gaining more assignments pre-pandemic, COVID sent Faktor into overdrive. In March 2020, Pauga was at the Big Ten tournament that year in Indianapolis, doing advance work for the men’s basketball team, when news came that the conference had canceled postseason play.

“I don’t think it was obvious at the moment what the scale and scope of the scheduling problem would be, forthcoming,” Pauga said, “but it became apparent pretty quickly afterwards.”

With conferences scrambling to schedule—and reschedule and re-reschedule—their 2020-21 football slates, Pauga’s ensuing days were consumed with back-to-back Zoom calls with different league offices. He had taken up biking during the pandemic and, on occasions where he didn’t need to show his face, took calls while on rides.

Prior to the Big Ten’s controversial decision in August 2020 to indefinitely postpone its fall sport season, Pauga had mocked up a football scheduling model for the pandemic nicknamed Jenga 41, which built in flexibility for 41 different games to be either played or removed. Another schedule designed to accommodate postponements was dubbed the Wonkavator, in honor of the magical, multidirectional lift in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The Big Ten ultimately relied on Faktor to produce its truncated, conference-only football schedule for its members, once the league’s presidents voted to return to the field of play.

“KP was really the one in the pandemic who allowed us to play 117 of our games,” Kenny said.

Since the pandemic, the Big Ten has depended even more on Pauga to sort through its expansion to 16 teams by next academic year, after its westerly additions of UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon. For the 2024 football season, the Big Ten will debut a “Flex Protect Plus Model” which has no divisional format, and which guarantees that members will play at home and away against every conference opponent at least twice over a four-year period.

For Pauga, the pressing question before him is how to scale the business, and what his schedule can accommodate.

“We will need to grow eventually–and probably sooner rather than later,” Pauga said. “I am not sure when I first built a schedule as a favor I ever envisioned it growing to this level. I am proud that it has, but I’ll be mindful of that if and when that opportunity presents itself.”

It’s another puzzle to solve, to be sure, but one that might not lend itself to an algorithm.

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