Wyoming hosts San Diego State tonight (if the Aztecs make it to Laramie) and it got me to wondering about the importance of altitude. The Aztecs won at New Mexico last week, and while observers were impressed with the win in the Lobos’ building, nobody really mentioned that they had to overcome the thin air of Albuquerque (elevation 5300 feet) as well. There are a few studies out there that have looked at the difference in a high-elevation team’s winning percentage between home and road games. For some reason, I’d rather know how many points altitude is worth.
Wyoming has played San Diego State home and away every season since 2000. In 12 games in Wyoming, the average margin as been +1.0 for Wyoming while the games at San Diego have produced an average margin of +9.4 for the Aztecs. The difference of 10.4 points can’t be explained by raw home court advantage alone, which has long been calculated to be around four points. There are 2.4 points left unaccounted for. This is only a 13 game sample, though, and the error bars are large enough so that we can’t get too carried away about the results.
A bigger sample is available if we look at the University of Colorado during its time in the Big 12. For 15 consecutive seasons the Buffaloes played a home and away series with Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, and Nebraska. In 75 games at Boulder over that span, the average margin was Colorado +1.5 and in the 75 games at lower elevation, Colorado’s average margin was -13.0, for a whopping 14.5 point difference, leaving 6.5 points unexplained.
Six points seems a bit much to account for altitude but there’s another possibility to consider as well. Teams residing at altitude might have an increased disadvantage when they go to lower locations. I’m not a runner and I don’t completely understand the concept of “living high and training low” but it seems to be accepted as an optimum way for endurance runners to train.
Obviously, teams living at high elevation can’t take advantage of this because they also train at high elevation. This might explain the additional disadvantage for these teams when they play at lower elevations. Perhaps higher elevation teams are in poorer shape than their lower elevation counterparts, an effect that is overwhelmed when the lower elevation team is suddenly deprived of its usual oxygen, but appears at sea-level when both teams are on equal footing air-wise.
Whatever the reason, there almost surely is an altitude effect that low-elevation teams have to suffer through when playing in thin air. If San Diego State wins tonight, I expect they won’t get as much credit as they deserve. Wyoming is a better team than RPI believers, or those that rate teams solely based on quality wins, would think. But also, there’s the altitude issue. Throw in the travel problems as well and it’s not unreasonable to think that the Aztecs are dealing with something approaching a double home-court advantage tonight. Keep that in mind if they pull out an ugly victory.