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NBA playoff format is optimizing competitive balance by eliminating travel

August 25, 2020

DARIEN, IL - In addition to helping protect players from COVID-19, the NBA "bubble" in Orlando may be a competitive equalizer by eliminating team travel. Researchers analyzing the results of nearly 500 NBA playoff games over six seasons found that a team's direction of travel and the number of time zones crossed were associated with its predicted win probability and actual game performance.

Preliminary results of the study suggest that the 2020 NBA playoffs, which begin Aug. 17, will eliminate any advantages or disadvantages related to long-distance travel. In this year's unique playoff format, implemented due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all 16 teams will stay in Orlando, Florida, and compete at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World.

The study found that scoring was significantly higher following eastward travel. Although there were no differences in actual game outcomes based on overall direction of travel, there were differences when considering both the direction and magnitude of travel. Teams that traveled east with three-hour time zone changes had higher predicted probabilities of winning than teams that traveled west or played in the same time zone. In contrast, teams that traveled west across three time zones had lower predicted win probabilities than teams that traveled east or played in the same time zone.

"During this initial study, it was interesting to find that team scoring improved during general eastward travel compared to westward travel and travel in the same zone, but game outcomes were unaffected by direction of travel during the playoffs," said lead author Sean Pradhan, assistant professor of sports management and business analytics in the School of Business Administration at Menlo College in Atherton, California. "However, when considering the magnitude of travel across different time zones, we found that teams had predicted probabilities of winning that were lower after traveling three time zones westward, and tended to actually lose more games when traveling two time zones westward compared to most other types of travel."

Circadian rhythms are endogenous, near-24-hour biological rhythms that exist in all living organisms, and these daily rhythms have peaks and troughs in both alertness and sleepiness that can impact individuals in high-performance professions. Therefore, an athlete has a greater opportunity for optimal performance when the timing of an activity is synchronized with the body's circadian clock.

Researchers from Menlo College and other collaborators reviewed data from 499 NBA playoff games from the 2013-2014 through 2018-2019 seasons. They looked at the impact of direction of travel and time zones traveled on actual game outcomes, team quality, predicted win probability, and team scoring for visiting teams.

"A great deal of prior work has examined the effects of travel and circadian advantages on team performance during the regular season of various professional sports leagues," said Pradhan. "The current study extends such findings of previous research by examining team performance in the NBA playoffs, which is obviously an extremely crucial time for teams competing."
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The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented as a poster Aug. 28-30 during Virtual SLEEP 2020. SLEEP is the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.

For a copy of the abstract or to arrange an interview with the study author or an AASM spokesperson, please contact AASM Communications Coordinator Corinne Lederhouse at 630-737-9700, ext. 9366, or clederhouse@aasm.org.

About the American Academy of Sleep Medicine

Established in 1975, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) is advancing sleep care and enhancing sleep health to improve lives. The AASM has a combined membership of 11,000 accredited member sleep centers and individual members, including physicians, scientists and other health care professionals (aasm.org).

About the Sleep Research Society

The Sleep Research Society (SRS) is a professional membership society that advances sleep and circadian science. The SRS provides forums for the exchange of information, establishes and maintains standards of reporting and classifies data in the field of sleep research, and collaborates with other organizations to foster scientific investigation on sleep and its disorders. The SRS also publishes the peer-reviewed, scientific journals Sleep and Sleep Advances (
American Academy of Sleep Medicine

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