Long distance travel blues?

Does traveling long distances to away games have an influence on results? Common sense and the latest statistical analysis seem to be at odds.

In my last blog I looked at the vagaries of the fixture computer as it sent teams the length and breadth of the country for midweek fixtures.
The piece was written from a fans perspective, so I thought it would be interesting to look at the issue from the club’s angle, as I wondered whether all that time spent traveling up and down the motorway had any impact on results.

Looking at a recent round of midweek fixtures, I picked out ten of the longest journeys undertaken just out of curiosity. As actor and comedian Rob Brydon would say it was “just a bit of fun”, as looking at such a small sample has no scientific or statistical credence whatsoever.

Team Traveling Destination Distance (miles)
AFC Bournemouth Liverpool 265
Brighton and Hove Albion Huddersfield Town 250
Leeds United Bristol City 210
Fulham Hull City 190
Southend United Doncaster Rovers 190
Gillingham Bradford City 230
Oldham Athletic Colchester United 240
Newport County Hartlepool United 280
Carlisle United Plymouth Argyle 390
Yeovil Town York City 275

So, out of these randomly selected games, how many do you think were won by the team hitting the road? The answer on this occasion was just one; Gillingham at Bradford City.

I agree that the sample is far too small to be of any statistical relevance but it is an interesting factor to keep an eye on in the coming weeks, especially if you like a cheeky accumulator.

Far greater minds than mine at the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective (HSAC) in America have, however, done a thorough study of the impact on results of the distances traveled in MLS.

HSAC is a student-run organisation at Harvard College dedicated to the quantitative analysis of sports strategy and management. In May this year, they published the results of a study by Brendan Kent that posed the question ‘Does Travel Distance Affect Results in MLS?’

Of course, the distances traveled by teams in the USA are huge in comparison with those undertaken in the UK and will usually involve stepping onto a plane rather than boarding a coach.

Although the two-conference system reduces the average distance an away team travels for a match, MLS teams still spend weeks crossing backwards and forwards over several time zones. The study revealed that during the 2013-14 MLS Season teams traveled an average of 1,058 miles to away matches.

This lead Kent on to the question, “Does travel distance effect results? In other words, can we expect teams to perform better away from home when that away match is closer to home?”

Having used various statistical wizardry to account for the relative strength of the two teams and other relevant variations and anomalies, the conclusion was as follows:
“When we control for general home advantage and the relative strengths of two teams, the physical distance between two teams has no effect on results from a statistical standpoint.

“This is not to say that travel takes no toll on players—it probably does—but the difference between Vancouver traveling to Portland and Vancouver traveling to New York is statistically insignificant when we control for the strength of the two teams.”

The question, I suppose, is whether these findings apply to the game in the UK, especially when finances may dictate that teams have to travel on the day rather than ahead of a game, giving the chance to relax in a hotel before battle commences.

Whilst we await a similar study in the UK, I still can’t help having a gut feeling that travel distance must be a factor when Carlisle United had to trek all the way down to Plymouth on a Tuesday evening!

By Steve Sands

Long distance travel blues?

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