Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

Geography influences home and away advantage in sports

Published on
September 9, 2015

This court will literally take your breath away


Breathtaking beauty! Air so thin it takes your breath away. While you may be drooling at the sight of the court above, it is not the most hospitable location for someone from a tropical climate to go and play on. That court is located at Kalimpong, West Bengal. While playing there is something to put on your bucket list, going there to compete should be left out. Read on to find how home court advantage is influenced by the climate.

Home court advantage is not as simple as it sounds. Often, it’s simply taken for granted that the home team has the advantage in their home arena, and that is true for the most part. Funnily enough, a study showed that if you want to rattle a free throw shooter in an arena, maintaining pin drop silence unnerves the shooter more than jeers. That’s one misconception shaken to the root, that the decibel level is inversely proportional to the free throw percentage of the away team.

Another preconceived notion is that home court advantage is more demographic than geographic. Granted, we do factor in travel, lodging, jet lag etc. when we consider home and away situations. But the actual geography of the location is often overlooked. Unless the climate is extreme like in Denver.

Over the last ten seasons, the Denver Nuggets have won 67.1% of their home games – only the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz and Suns have won more percent of their games at home. And the Nuggets have the highest difference between home wins and away wins, 28.8 %. The Portland Trailblazers have one of the wildest fan bases in Rose Garden Arena, and their win difference between home and away games is only 21.7 %. Denver is known as the mile high city, situated at a punishing altitude and that is reflected in the performance of teams who come to play there.

In the NBA, the champion is crowned after a gruelling postseason, which comes after a gruelling regular season which filters the pool of 30 teams down to the best 16. In the playoffs, the teams battle each other in best of 7 series. These series’ aren’t held in one venue. Of the two teams battling it out, the team with the better record gets to host 4 of the 7 games, provided the series goes that far. So both teams have the advantage of having the game being played on their home court. During the 2010-11 season home, teams went 743-487 (60.4%).

Geography was at play in our National Basketball championship too. The 62nd Nationals were held in Chennai, Tamil Nadu and the 63rd Nationals took place a few days ago in Ludhiana, Punjab. The players who made the trip from down south were all putting up status updates about how freezing cold it was up in Ludhiana. The climate makes a huge difference. Recall those martial arts movies where the training montages take place in the hills. The air is thinner up there. Lack of oxygen (hypoxia), cold and dehydration can lead to breathlessness, headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue, and possibly altitude sickness.

I checked the temperature during the nationals. On the same day, it was 12 degree Celsius in Ludhiana and 27 degrees in Chennai. Ludhiana is 247 meters above sea level, and a lot of the southern coastal states are at sea level. Stark contrast there.

Of playing in Denver, Raptors coach Dwyane Casey has said “We found out it takes maybe a week to get used to the altitude and get acclimated to it. It does help that the first burn is not at game-time. Going there a day early will help us from that standpoint.”

In May 2007, FIFA banned international matches from being played at more than 2500m above sea level. Denver is known as the mile high city, since its 1609 meters above sea level. These numbers do make the elevation of Ludhiana seem paltry, but the climate doesn’t always depend solely on elevation. If you saw the matches on DD Sports, you will have seen the entire crowd huddled under layers and layers of clothing and monkey caps.

On one hand, it’s difficult for those living and training in warm climates to go and adjust to playing in cold climates. On the other hand, those who train in cold climates develop their bodies better because of the difficult training conditions. If you are using decreased oxygen while training, it forces your muscles to become more efficient at getting by on lower oxygen. A study says high-altitude living increases red-blood-cell concentrations, allowing more oxygen to reach the muscles during exercise, and also hikes the levels of an important chemical called 2.3-DPG, which helps ‘release’ oxygen from red blood cells to the muscles during intense exercise.

Here’s a practical experiment conducted by Patrick McSharry, a research fellow at the University of Oxford. He set out to assess the effect of altitude on match results and physiological performance of a large and diverse sample of professional footballers. He analysed the scores and results:

- of 1,460 international football matches played at different altitudes.
- in 10 different countries in South America spanning over 100 years.

Four variables were used to calculate the effect of altitude and to control for differences in team ability:

- probability of a win
- goals scored
- goals conceded
- altitude difference between home and away team venues.

High altitude teams scored more and conceded fewer goals as altitude difference increased. Each additional 1,000m of altitude difference increased the goal difference by about half of a goal. That is a huge margin. For example, in the case of two teams from the same altitude, the probability of the home team winning is 0.537. This rises to 0.825 for an altitude difference of 3,695m (such as high altitude Bolivia versus a sea-level opponent Brazil) and falls to 0.213 when the altitude difference is -3,695m (Brazil versus Bolivia). Bolivia is at an altitude of 4000 meters, so them beating Brazil seems fathomable at that altitude.

In the recent basketball nationals, Tamil Nadu men’s team lost in the semi finals and the women lost in the finals. The climate may have made for some lower scoring matches in Ludhiana this year as compared to Chennai last year.  When people talk about home and away advantages, the climate and elevation makes for a difference of earth and sky. And now you know why.

Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

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