Applied Statistics and Operations Research Faculty Publications

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We analyze the number of games played in a seven-game playoff series under various homeaway sequences. In doing so, we employ a simple Bernoulli model of home-field advantage in which the outcome of each game in the series depends only on whether it is played at home or away with respect to a designated home team. Considering all such sequences that begin and end at home, we show that, in terms of the number of games played, there are four classes of stochastically different formats, including the popular 2-3 and 2-2 formats both currently used in National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs. Characterizing the regions in parametric space that give rise to distinct stochastic and expected value orderings of series length among these four format classes, we then investigate where in this parametric space that teams actually play. An extensive analysis of historical 7-game playoff series data from the NBA reveals that this homeaway model is preferable to the simpler, well-studied but ill-fitting binomial model that ignores home-field advantage. The model suggests that switching from the 2-2 series format used for most of the playoffs to the 2-3 format that has been used in the NBA Finals since a switch in 1985 would stochastically lengthen these playoff series, creating an expectation of approximately one extra game per playoff season. Such evidence should encourage television sponsors to lobby for a change of playoff format in order to garner additional television advertising revenues while reducing team and media travel costs.

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Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports