WNBA Schedule Pain

The “condensed schedule” has been a major topic of discussion this WNBA season. With the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup beginning in late September, the 2018 WNBA season had to be stuffed into a shorter span starting in late May and ending (including Playoffs) less than four months later.

That led me to dive in to a closer look at the pain of the WNBA schedule in general. In particular, in the first post of this series, I’m going to look at the 2017 and 2018 schedules. Using the WNBA Attendance Database and a very basic formula, I’ve plotted the relative pain of the WNBA schedule for each team in the past two years.

The data keeps a basic running “pain score” for each team, using the following rules:

  • Every team starts the season at a pain of 0.
  • All teams start the schedule in their home cities.
  • On any given day that the team does not play, subtract 0.5 to account for rest.
  • On any given day the team does play, if they had to travel to get to that game, add 0.5 to account for travel pain.
  • On the day after a game day, add 1.0 to account for the pain of having played a game.
  • A team cannot go below zero pain. (In reality, this rarely has a chance to happen in the WNBA anyway, due to the compactness of the schedule.)

Of course, this isn’t a perfect measurement. This doesn’t account for a number of things:

  • Late arrivals to the team: due to overseas play, many teams don’t fully come together until after the regular season has started, and many players are still playing off the pain of their overseas schedules.
  • “Tougher”/longer games: With due respect to every team in the league, there are going to be some teams that play you tougher than others. A blowout win gives your starters more rest than an overtime game would.
  • Relative pain of travel: Any travel is scored the same, but a flight across time zones (say, New York to Los Angeles) is probably tougher on a team than a ride from Chicago to Indianapolis.
  • Game times: the WNBA has a number of afternoon or late morning games and early afternoon games on the weekends. The relative timing of consecutive games could impact a team’s travel, but it’s not accounted for in this data.
  • Injuries/age/etc: There are so many other factors you could work in to this data. For example, you could argue a younger team could deal with extensive travel better than a more seasoned roster. Or, maybe, a more experienced team is more adept at dealing with travel?

The point is: this data isn’t meant to be predictive or perfect at describing the pain of a WNBA season. To think you could do that in one dimension is probably foolish. Instead, this data should be season as just one view of the season.

Now, on to the data…

Well, one second. I’ll be posting the full data set (from 1997 to the present) soon, along with followup analysis on some of the intervening years. For now, I’m focusing on this season and last.

Okay, here we go. First is the 2017 schedule, followed by the 2018 schedule. (Click or tap an image to get a larger view.). Some analysis follows.

  • The first thing you can’t help but notice is Dallas’s 2017 schedule. The difference between their June schedule and the rest of the league’s is stark. Even after June, they still remain higher than the rest of the league until late August. The Wings went 5-6 in June last year and 3-6 in July including a stretch in early June when they went 1-6. That said, they won four straight games at the end of June, the most “painful” part of their schedule, proving that you can’t predict by this data alone. Interestingly, they are consistently at the bottom of the league in terms of schedule pain this year.
  • You’ll notice consistent dips for every team toward the end of July in both years. This is due to the All-Star breaks. In 2017, there were no regular season games from July 21 to July 24 for the All-Star game on July 22. This year, the All-Star game is on July 28, and there are no regular season games from July 26 to July 30.
  • Last year’s champs, the Minnesota Lynx, rode out the majority of the season with the least painful schedule until August, when they hit a particularly painful stretch that accumulated quickly. That was also their worst month of the regular season, finishing out August 6-5. However, they finished out the season at home and got nine days of rest before their first Playoff game, so the pain didn’t keep them from winning their fourth title.
  • You can really see the effects of the condensed schedule by comparing 2017 to 2018 directly. In 2017, no team’s “pain” climbs above 11, while in 2018 no team dips below 10.5 after mid-July and the New York Liberty finish out the season with a pain score of 20.
  • At the time of this post, the Phoenix Mercury and Las Vegas Aces are far above the rest of the league in terms of cumulative pain, but the Liberty easily have the toughest end of the regular season. It will be interesting to see how that accumulation affects their ability to lock in playoff seeding.
  • You can see how a compact schedule as in this year can have major implications on the end of the season. In the final weeks of the 2018 regular season, most teams are in the 15-18 pain range, which, again, is higher than the maximum pain score of any team in 2017 (11). In 2017, you see some relative spikes, but every team stays pretty level in the 4.5-8.5 range for most of the season. There is just more time between games to allow more rest during the season.

More data and analysis will be coming soon on the rest of the seasons starting from the beginning of the league.

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