Sports fans in North Texas don’t always have an easy go of it, but a new study says some of can be explained by science.
The peer-reviewed study in last month’s International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health focused on two different professional sports leagues: Major League Baseball, and the National Football League. Using historical air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency, and stats from the two leagues, the researchers found that teams and players that played and practiced primarily in cities with the worst air quality also performed more poorly than players and teams in cities with better air.
Researchers at Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette used a dataset comprised of all the errors committed in MLB games from 1999 to 2020, and another dataset that compiled all the interceptions thrown and the quarterback rating for every NFL quarterback from 2006 to 2021. Those numbers were then compared to EPA Air Quality Index data, which measures pollutants like particulate matter in the air. They also addressed variables like salary and experience of the team and the head coach.
“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that air quality has a negative impact on MLB or NFL performance,” the researchers from the kinesiology departments of both schools said, adding that previous studies focused on endurance sports but that their findings indicate that “air quality has negative impacts on performance in sports dominated by short, fast plays, even for healthy young men.”
The study found that in isolated incidents (like specific games), the difference in the way a team or player performed when air quality was poor was negligible. The biggest difference, the study suggested, was what happened over the course of the season.
Take the NFL, for instance. Each time the AQI rose by a point, there was a .230 decrease in quarterback rating, which factors in passing attempts, completions, interceptions, touchdowns, and total yards. In Dallas-Fort Worth, the average AQI between 2019 and 2021 (for instance) was 56.5. Multiply that by .230, and a quarterback like Dak Prescott could see his rating reduced by as much as 13 points.
In baseball, each time the AQI rose by a point, an additional 0.000993 errors per game were committed. So for the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where the Texas Rangers play, that additional 0.000993, when multiplied by an AQI of 56.5, and then by the 162 games in a season, would come out to more than nine additional errors per season.
By comparison, the study said that Phoenix, which is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks and not far from where the Arizona Cardinals play, has the worst air quality in both leagues with an AQI of 67. The Diamondbacks could expect an additional 10 errors each season, and a quarterback with the Cardinals might see his rating drop by more than 15 points. (The study didn’t note exactly where Dallas-Fort Worth checked in.)
The study found that the worse the air quality is, the more likely it is that a quarterback will throw interceptions. It also found that there were long-term cognitive impacts from practicing and playing in cities with bad air quality—something that was also found in a study of marathon runners. Studies of track and field participants and soccer players also found that athletes were slower when they played in places where the air quality was poor.
“Collectively, the results from the present study and previous research suggest that air quality is a significant factor in elite performance,” the researchers said. “Moreover, these results show that even healthy young men whom regularly exercise are can be adversely affected by air quality that is deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ by the EPA.”
Since it is the first study of its kind, it is likely that now researchers will begin looking deeper into how the environment can help or hinder sports. But more importantly, it could serve as a way for everyone—athlete and fan alike—to better understand the health impacts of poor air quality. And, who knows, maybe that’s why Dak Prescott threw all those interceptions last year?
Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She’s written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.