As a billion-dollar industry with millions of fans, there is so much more than passes and touchdowns behind the success of the National Football League (NFL). Among each of the 32 teams, athletic performance is heavily dependent on skill strength, stamina, and recovery, but teams rely on something much greater: scheduling. While fans may assume the opposing team is what makes or breaks a win, they should be less concerned about who they go up against and more concerned about the time the game starts.
Sleep schedules have a significant impact on the average person’s energy levels and performance in various areas, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sleep also significantly impacts athletes and their performance during game time. Taking sleep into consideration when scheduling can make for better gameplay – a side effect that fans are sure to appreciate. To get a better idea of how daytime games compare to nighttime games, we scraped football game data from the past 10 years, broke it down by the time of day, and compared the results. Keep reading to learn if daylight brings about the best performance or if nighttime is the way to go.
Saved by the Schedule
Certain aspects of scheduling in the NFL are pretty simple: Determining who plays who is split up by divisions and conferences, which are rotated each year. While this formula is the same for every team, helping even out whom they play against, scheduling game times is significantly less equal. With 54 games in the past 10 years, the Dallas Cowboys played more prime-time games than any other team in the NFL. The Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals played just under half as many prime-time games, with 25 nighttime games each. At the bottom of the list, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars played only 15 and 14 prime-time games, respectively, while the Buffalo Bills played the least with just 11.
Thanks to our body’s biological clock, there are certain times of day when we perform our best, both cognitively and physically. And not getting enough sleep undoubtedly impacts our behavior. Considering athletes have to meet unique physical requirements, their sleep habits are incredibly important. But their sleep schedules are also dependent on their scheduling. Late games may keep athletes up later than day games, so are prime-time games really prime for performance? For some teams, the answer is yes.
Compared to daytime games over the last 10 years, the Seattle Seahawks won 28.7 percentage points more games when they played during prime time. The Cleveland Browns also saw a significant increase in the number of games won when playing after dark – compared to just under 24% of day games, the team saw victory in 43.8% of prime-time games, according to our data.
Despite these drastic improvements, the majority of teams didn’t see a stark rise in wins. And there were plenty of teams that performed better during the day. Of note, the Cincinnati Bengals saw a decrease of 29 percentage points in wins when playing prime time, while the Los Angeles Chargers saw a 27 percentage point decrease.
Home Team Advantage
They say, “There’s no place like home,” and when it comes to sports, it almost always rings true. While some have speculated that the “home-field advantage” is just superstition, research has shown otherwise – especially in the NFL. If game start time plays a role in the number of wins, and location does as well, what happens when the two come together?
The Seattle Seahawks saw the most substantial increase in wins once again, with prime-time home games resulting in a nearly 29 percentage point increase in wins. While the Cleveland Browns also saw a significant rise in home game wins at prime time – seeing an 18.8 percentage point increase in wins – the Baltimore Ravens saw an even greater increase with a 20.6 percentage point improvement.
But once again, playing at prime time and playing at home aren’t straight paths toward winning, even when they’re combined. The Indianapolis Colts won 34.1 percentage points fewer games when playing at home during prime time, yet saw a 9.7 percentage point increase in wins when playing away during prime time. Similarly, the Arizona Cardinals struggled to bring in more wins during prime-time home games, yet secured nearly 30 percentage point more wins when playing away prime-time games.
Where to Draw the Line
Despite the time of day impacting game turnout at least somewhat across all teams, betting lines stayed relatively equal. The average betting line for the Los Angeles Rams during prime time was +3.1. This means that the Rams were most commonly the underdogs. On the other side, the Seahawks had -1.8, on average, which means they were the most favored team to win during prime time.
Fans might be iffy about making their bets riskier, but if you were ever to take a risk, you’d be best off doing so with the Seattle Seahawks – across all teams in the NFL, the Seahawks were the team most likely to cover their line during prime-time games with a success record of 81%. The only team that came close to matching their record was the New England Patriots, who covered the line for 64% of prime-time games. However, playing it safe may be the best bet when it comes to wagering money for the Buffalo Bills: The team covered the line for just 18% of prime-time games.
Teams That Have You Covered
NFL teams were more likely to cover the line when playing home prime-time games, with the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks successfully doing so for 85% and 84% of games, respectively. While the Chiefs struggled during away games, only covering the line for 44% of prime-time games, the Seahawks continued to dominate and covered the line for three-fourths of away games played during prime time.
The concept of home-field advantage is supported by plenty of evidence, but it doesn’t necessarily seem to apply to all teams. The Jacksonville Jaguars were the least likely to cover the line during away games played at prime time, but taking the team home increased their likelihood by 40%.
Bet on It
Even though some teams aren’t likely to cover the line in home or away prime-time games, playing it safe doesn’t always work in bettors’ favors. When it comes to over/under betting, it may be best to assume a team will impress with their performance – at least for specific teams.
During home games, the Tennessee Titans were the most likely to cover the over, and during prime-time home games, the Titans covered the over 82% of the time. The Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Miami Dolphins were also among the most likely to cover the over, with each team covering 67% of prime-time home games.
While the Seattle Seahawks thrived in prime-time games, both away and at home, they struggled to reach the set game total when they played as the away team – the team covered the over just 23% of the time. On the other hand, the Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars covered 81% and 75% of away prime-time games, respectively.
After losing streaks and bad plays, fans sometimes struggle to support their favorite teams – but through and through, Dallas Cowboys fans were the most loyal. Not only did they attend the most day and night games, but they were also more willing to travel to support and interact with the team’s online community. Loyalty isn’t the only factor in game day attendance, though.
Compared to daytime games, prime-time game attendance increased by an average of nearly 3,000 people. The Washington Redskins had the most significant increase from day to night attendance, with 7,830 more people in the stadium during the evening. The Detroit Lions also saw a drastic difference, with nearly 6,000 more people attending nighttime games compared to those held during the day.
On the other hand, only four teams – the Patriots, Steelers, Jaguars, and Ravens – saw decreases in attendance when games were played at night. Late matches left the Ravens and Jaguars with 2,781 and 1,627 fewer fans in the stands, respectively.
For the Win
If there’s one thing football fans can agree on, it’s that they love a good game. While fans want to see their team win more than anything, it’s not always about who is on the opposing side. Our biological clocks and the sleep we get determine our performance, and athletes are no exception. With so many players on a team, and only so much control over scheduling, it can be challenging to match up overall peak performance with game time. But when everything falls into place, specific teams can claim more wins during prime time, and even land fans with more money in their pocket.
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The source of the data used throughout this campaign comes from pro-football-reference.com. We scraped data from box score pages from every regular season game over the past 10 seasons, like this game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles from the last season.
Prime-time games were considered as any game that had a start time of 8 p.m. or later in the Eastern Time Zone.
As displayed in the first chart of the study, not every team had an equal number of prime-time games. Because of this, not every team had an equal chance of proving themselves on the field.
Fair Use Statement
No fan likes to see their team lose. But understanding the reasons behind the loss may help to ease the pain. If you’d like to share our findings on the impact of game time on victories, we grant you permission to use the graphics and content found here for noncommercial purposes. Just don’t forget to link back to this page to give the authors proper credit.