The Time Zone Dilemma

by | April 9, 2014, 12:42pm 0

In regards to political ultimate discussions, I have been relatively quiet on social media and I never post on ultimate news sites. Last Thursday, for some reason, I felt compelled to blurt out my thoughts on the bid process and the state of women’s college ultimate on what I thought was my private Facebook wall.  I guess 12 years of being intimately involved in the division causes a lot of pent up thoughts that have to be released from time to time.  What ensued was a thoughtful conversation between a few of my ultimate colleagues and myself.  I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and have reflected a lot on the ideas presented in the dialogue.

Fast forward 24 hours, and to my surprise, I found that my hastily-written comments and ensuing discussion had been turned into an article on an ultimate news site without my permission or knowledge. Obviously I found it frustrating that someone used my personal Facebook page to get some clicks on their site, but the thing I found most frustrating about the situation is if I had known things were going to be so public, I would have been more articulate, more precise, and backed up my thoughts with more evidence. Having been exposed in a rather abrupt way, I now feel a sense a responsibility to engage in a public conversation.  Therefore, this is my attempt – not necessarily as a coach, or as an athlete, but as a women’s ultimate advocate –  to fulfill my responsibilities and share more of what I expressed on my Facebook wall in a deeper, more complete way.  Read away, and I will be around to respond to comments as long as they are respectful and productive.

Many of the Facebook comments that were left out of the news article referred to evidence demonstrating a statistically significant competitive advantage for the home team when the opponent has traveled multiple time zones.  Most of the research believes this is due to circadian rhythms, but that is not a tested hypothesis. There appears to be a statistical advantage for a team to play an opponent that has traveled one, two, or three time zones.  That advantage increases with number of time zones.  All of the studies were done on the NFL – who flies luxuriously and the least often of all of our major sports teams – so the fact that the performance of those that fly coast-to-coast are affected with all the money in the world and perfect accommodations leads us to believe there is a good chance there is a statistically significant advantage to playing an opposite coast team in your coastal backyard while holding all other variables constant (i.e. youth development).  I now summarize some data.  (Note:  I value evidence highly and also believe all evidence is suspect to biases and poor methodologies.  I did not critique these studies the same way I would critique a study on eccentric calf raises and achilles tendonitis. #aintgottimeforthat. But if this data influences Vegas, I think it is worthy enough for us to at least consider in this conversation).

Pro sports are excellent gambling opportunities and because a lot of money gets tossed around, some have turned it into a science.  Various bloggers and sports analysts have broken down the advantages of playing a team from another time zone in the home time zone.  There is data suggesting that it works both ways – the east suffers when they go west and the west suffers when they go east.  In one particular analysis – which only looked at teams traveling west to east – west teams were able to cover the spread 68.8% of the time in MT, 45.7% in CN, and 43.6% of the time in EST.  They performed worse than expected the more time zones they traveled. They did not look at it the other way, but another blogger analyzed how inferior West Coast teams in the NFL did better than expected against East Coast teams in their backyard. Finally, a major study looked at years of performance in the NFL.  When playing an intra-time zone rival, home winning percentage was 56.6% and away winning percentage was 43.4%.  When the West went to the EST, their away winning percentage dropped 16.3% and when an East Coast team visited PST, the West Coast’s winning percentage increased from 56.6% to 68.4%.3  To summarize, in other sports there appears to be an advantage, especially when a team does not have the time or luxury to get themselves acclimated to the new time zone (what most do for championship games).  Most studies do focus on circadian rhythms and we can not be certain how this affects our athletes until this is studied in ultimate.

I am not saying that some Northwest schools, like the University of Victoria, are without their challenges.  I spoke to Victoria’s coach for a good amount of time at President’s Day about the ferry commute and 30 hour bus trip. I give mad props to them for what they have been able to achieve and what they will achieve in the future with so many geographical obstacles.  I also recognize that driving 9+ hours in the car up and down a coast is challenging as well. I am not really interested in looking up the data on number of miles traveled within a time zone and performance, but I am sure there is some data out there. I think without presenting real evidence on this, we can all agree the home team(s) has an advantage. What I am trying to say above is that flying multiple time zones appears to decrease the amount of points the away team scores in a statistically meaningful way.

This can occur even without teams or players realizing it. In a Facebook comment, Claire Chastain told me: “We (PHX) didn’t perform poorly at Labor Day in 2012 bc it was PST, promise you that.” I really appreciate Claire’s insight into the matter, but there are two things that a researcher looks at with a comment like this one.  First of all, it is inherently biased.  Claire, in no way, shape or form, can look at this event in her life and not have a biased interpretation about what happened.  Secondly, it is a case study.  A good study includes at least hundreds of data points (games) like the studies I presented above on the NFL.  So, although I think there is a time and a place for case studies, they are not the strongest evidence in the world and should be taken with a grain of salt.

I am hoping at this point we can all agree that there is a good chance that there is a statistically significant advantage to playing a team from an opposite coast in your coastal backyard.  If you don’t agree, I would love to see evidence below explaining why (remember, I don’t care much for case studies).  If we do agree there’s a solid chance, then at what point is it ok for ¾ of the country to fly to ¼ of the country and that ¼ of the country never visit the other ¾?  The bid allocations are biased and if this was an experimental study in medicine, it would never be approved for publication. A worthy study does not have an experimental group where half of its subjects in the group go through the study under significantly harsher conditions than the other half.  See how this is starting to work out?  Our current system is a poor way to measure regional strength and allocate bids.

That all being said, I do not believe we can set up a double-blind, randomized, perfect QUADAS score competitive structure to determine bids per region.  I get that, I really do.  But, we can’t have it be this tilted.  In what other competitive sport structure in the United States is this acceptable?  A percentage of each region needs to cross time zones or no one should cross time zones to level out the competitive advantage.  It is at times like these that I think of Sonoma State’s emergence on the scene.  Ranked fourth in the nation for most of the year in 2012, they never left their corner of the country and finished at the bottom at Nationals.  Should some other team from some other region have been there instead of them? I don’t know. But, using their performance at Nationals, if they had flown off their coast during the regular season, there’s a good chance bids may not have shook out the way they did.

I do want to address another comment I saw on Twitter from Western Washington coach Alyssa Weatherford.

Alyssa, thank you for your comment.  It made me dig and dig on a Score Reporter we don’t use anymore.

I didn’t go all the way back to 2012 to see how much the SW traveled during the regular season – I know Sonoma State did not leave their coast.  But, I did have a problem with them getting 5 bids back then too, so I’m guessing they didn’t travel too much.  I think my point was made when not a single team made quarters.  As for comparing 2013 and 2014, here is what I have to share:

2013 North Central Schools at College Championships

Carleton – 3 Tournaments (Eastern, Pacific, and Central)

Iowa – 3 Tournaments – (Eastern and two Central)

Minnesota – 3 Tournaments – (three Central)

Iowa State – 4 Tournaments – (Eastern and three Central)

Wisconsin – 5 Tournaments – (Eastern, Pacific, and three Central)

2014 Northwest Schools by End of Year Rank

Oregon – 4 Tournaments (All Pacific)

UBC – 2 Tournaments (All Pacific)

Washington – 3 Tournaments (All Pacific)

Whitman – 2 Tournaments (All Pacific)

Victoria – 2 Tournaments (All Pacific)

Western Washington – 4 Tournaments (All Pacific)

I had no problem last year with the North Central getting five bids.  They went out there and earned them and also crossed time zones in a solid third of their tournaments. Minnesota got their bid because these other teams left their region and brought that bid back to them.  I can’t say for a half a heartbeat that anyone in the Northwest brought a bid back to the Northwest.  All the other regions dropped them off in the Northwest for them (Thanks Atlantic Coast and New England!).  Does that mean the Northwest will do as poorly as at the College Championships this year as the Southwest did in 2012?  I don’t know.  I have yet to see them off their coast.  The bid allocation process is supposed to reflect regular season strength – and how can it even remotely measure that when three quarters of the country competing is exposed to what appears to be statistically significant competitive disadvantages?  We have to reward regions that have proven regular season strength while traveling. The North Central region did that in 2013.  The data shows that the Northwest did not do that in 2014.

Also, in my original Facebook post I said six bids from the Northwest region is bad for the women’s college division and continued with a conversation about how UCONN women’s basketball and UNC-CH women’s soccer dominance are bad for their respective sports.  After much reflection and reading, I want to state that I don’t think repeat champions and dynasties are bad for a sport.  I think they are great programs ahead of a division experiencing growing pains.  But, I do think six bids from the Northwest is bad because it reflects unfairness.  I am asking for equal opportunity to gain bids in each region, not equal outcome.  Currently, we are missing equal opportunity in the college division and look what happened in the women’s club division the first year USA Ultimate mandated travel: DC Scandal ended Fury’s run of championships. Going forward, I would like to see leaving time zones incentivized for regions.  Incentivizing regions, not teams, is an important distinction that I will let marinate a bit for everyone.

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