Is Jet Lag Worse for Eastern Conference Teams?

The Toronto Raptors may have claimed “We the North,” but they are closer than you might think to being “We the East,” too. Only five of the 30 National Basketball Association stadiums are situated east of the Scotiabank Arena, which means when the Raptors travel, their plane is usually pointed west. Recent research into athletic travel and performance suggests that this puts the NBA champions at a minor disadvantage.

A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research analyzed stats from five years of regular–season games in the NBA, National Hockey League and National Football League to compare whether eastbound or westbound teams have a leg up on their competitors when it comes to jet lag. As it turns out, heading west isn’t best.

While that’s bad news for the Raptors, the effects are not significant enough to cost them the championship trophy. But their track record for the 2018–2019 season does bear out the study’s findings: The majority of Raptors’ road losses went down west of Toronto. In fact, almost half of the team’s total defeats were located left of the of 79°W longitude line.

February 25, 2020
An illustration of eastern and western conference basketball players playing against each other

It all comes down to the biological clock. The same research also shows that peak performance time for athletes falls between late afternoon and early evening. So, when the Raptors head to Los Angeles for a 7 p.m. PST start time, for example, the three–hour time difference puts them at what academics call a “circadian disadvantage.” In other words, when a player is in need of adrenalin, his brain is serving him melatonin, the sleep hormone. If tipoff takes place in the afternoon, the probability of the Raptors winning goes up – notwithstanding rest, home–team advantage and all the other factors that shuffle the odds.

Add more time zones to the westward equation, and winning percentages go south. That’s why medal hopefuls heading to Tokyo this year will likely plan to arrive several weeks before their events. Canadian athletes will need more than most: To fully reset the circadian clock takes about one day for every time zone.