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Close up of the official Nike Aerowsculpt ball before the Premier League match at the Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton. Picture date: Sunday August 28, 2022.

‘Night Owl Effect’: Better late for Premier League home sides

DO some Premier League teams have an advantage – even potentially an unfair advantage – simply due to when their games are scheduled?

Close up of the official Nike Aerowsculpt ball before the Premier League match at the Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton. Picture date: Sunday August 28, 2022.

It’s been found that later Premier League kick-off times significantly increase home advantage, according to a new study published in a journal at University College Cork.

The analysis, carried out by Dr Daragh O’Leary, used publicly available data from the Premier League and Transfermarkt to examine how kick-off times impacted home and away team performance.

It’s widely accepted across most – if not all – sports that playing at home is an advantage, mostly due to the home crowd and familiarity with a pitch etc, but who’d have thought that playing at specific times of the day might have an impact too?

The study, called ‘The Night Owl Effect in the Premier League’ looked at the results across the 2021/2022 season, when kick-off times varied from early afternoon to late evening. Kick-off times in the Premier League take place throughout the entire day and can start as early as 12 or 12:30 or as late as 8pm.

Early games were designated in the study as those between 12 and 12:30, middle of the day between 2pm and 4:30pm, and later, from 4:30pm onwards. The most common kick-off time was found to be middle of the day, when almost 60% of fixtures were played. There’s just over 8% of games in the early bracket, and 32.27% were late kick-offs.

According to the findings, teams playing at home were more likely to win their games, and not just that, but win by larger margins when games kicked-off later in the day.

The study also found that away teams were less likely to keep a clean sheet during later kick-off times.

The times that different Premier League teams have games scheduled for is also not distributed evenly, it seems. The teams, which would traditionally be seen as the main teams in the running for the title – Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Spurs – were more likely to have either earlier or later kick offs on a Saturday in particular.

There’s a broadcast blackout in the UK on Saturday between 2.45pm and 5.15pm to encourage fans to attend games. However, the big six teams draw significant viewing figures when televised, and therefore can end up playing outside those blackout hours more frequently.

The analysis from Dr O’Leary, who was based at UCC’s Cork University Business School at the time of this research, suggests that these teams may have an advantage over others due to their matches being more widely televised.

In more specific terms, the paper found that home teams were 6% more likely to win the fixture by three or more goals in late kick-offs compared to early kick-offs.

The home team is also just under 15% less likely to lose the match and 6% less likely to lose by three or more goals in later kick-offs compared to early kick-offs.

While late kick-offs seem to have no significant impact on the home team’s likelihood of keeping a clean sheet, they do reduce the likelihood the away team will keep a clean sheet by just over 26%.

That seems like a pretty high figure and it might be something for the league to look at when scheduling fixtures going forward. Just as home and away games are played, an even distribution of timings may have significant impact on the standings.

It’s a fascinating insight into the game. And, while home advantage is generally something that is seen across the board in all sports, I can only imagine that it is even more important in soccer.

From my own observation, fans of home and away teams are kept in separate areas of the stand, and there are far fewer away fans at games. However, the study also mentions alcohol consumption as a potential contributing factor in home advantage, as it can create a more hostile environment for away teams – also an interesting point.

A suggestion from the research is that by spreading out fixtures over more matchdays, leagues could reduce the variation in kick-off times and mitigate what has been dubbed the ‘night owl effect’. It’s thought that this could help to level the playing field and reduce the advantage that certain teams may have due to the timing of their matches.

It is noted that this study has some limitations in that it is a reference point for the Premier League only, and not other leagues or sports.

Also, it should be noted that while the study identified the night owl effect, it didn’t look into exactly why the teams fared as they did – whether this effect was due to improved home team performance or poorer away team performance.

The study is a very interesting read and has been published in The Boolean, an online interdisciplinary journal that highlights the exciting and diverse range of doctoral research carried out at UCC.

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