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Empty stadiums have shrunk football teams’ home advantage (economist.com)
84 points by prostoalex 5 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 55 comments

Home field advantage lessening but not disappearing is as expected. There are two major sources of home field advantage (basing on US sports):

* What fans influence: subconscious referee biases (not wanting to be booed for a close call), heckling that slightly impacts players’ focus, objects being waved in their line of sight, noise levels rising at inopportune times, etc.

* Travel/comfort: the home team players sleep in their own custom-tailored sleeping environments (these can include stuff like oxygen tents, not just nice mattresses), don’t spend time encased in a plane / train / bus environment not designed for optimizing future athletic performance, and don’t have travel stresses and logistical headaches. Also for those inclined, the local club / strip club / groupie scene doesn’t hold the same mysterious allure on a random Tuesday night as it might for the lad from out of town.

The second set of factors remains even when fans aren’t allowed inside the arena.

This is England, where all of the grounds are in driving distance of each other and an "away" game might well be in the same city.

It would be interesting to control for distance travelled, and see if a third factor emerges where teams play worse even if they can stay at home and don't have a significant train/plane/bus journey to make. The third factor could be very minor differences between the grounds, or a pure placebo effect, or a tactical reaction to the placebo effect (teams often set up more conservatively away from home because they expect to be at a disadvantage).

(I haven't read the article yet - I've used up all my free Economist articles - so maybe it touches on this, but it's neglected in your post).

I actually explored all those in my research a few years ago, but stateside and with baseball as the subject: https://neosmart.net/blog/2016/homefield-advantage/

I don't see an attempt there to control for distance. If I'm reading it right, you've explored the variation in home advantage over time, between ballparks, and between teams (which turns out to be significantly different from ballparks - a surprising finding). The very last paragraph says you've left examining the effect of distance to "a better study". What am I missing?

I've seen results before from American sports saying travelling East is worse for a team than travelling West, because of jetlag effects, and travelling to Colorado is bad, because of altitude effects. Those results would be tricky to tease out with your approach: if West Coast teams consistently perform 5% worse when playing on the East Coast, you can't tell that apart from East Coast teams playing 5% worse on the West coast by looking solely at win rates. The study I'm thinking of did something clever with looking at multi-game series to evaluate the jetlag effect.

The assumption was that teams from the Midwest would suffer least if it were purely distance (as they have the least shift/average travel) but that didn't bear out.

Have they? They have to travel half the distance, 100% of the time, compared to the coastal teams who travel the full distance across America half the time. That's in the "spherical cow" situation where all the East teams play in New York and all the West Coast teams play in LA...but if you add up the real miles travelled its probably within 20%.

Sure, but they never\* have to travel the full coast-to-coast, which is presumably where the worst of its effects, if any, would be realized.

The article covers leagues all across Europe not just England

And maybe not so relevant these days because most pitches are standard size, but years ago football pitches could vary in size, 90-120m in length, and 45-90m in width, maybe in the past even more, I remember some quoting some pitches as long as 130m+

Teams who were on the boundaries of these often took advantage of it, my home team played in a larger than average pitch and you would clearly see teams that went in full pressure to lose a lot of gas by the second half, the best coaches knew how to make this count. On the other side of the spectrum, teams with shorter fields favoured playing long balls straight from goal kicks to the strikers.

Tbf I miss a little bit the days where these small inconsistencies would affect the game and require a little bit more studying on the coaches part.

The numbers you quoted are still the standard although international pitches are constrained to 64-75m wide, 100-110m long. That probably means top teams are likely to use the international standard or at least have the option to mark the pitch thusly when things like the World Cup or Euros need stadiums.

In Brazil they would vary wildly so that's where my nostalgia comes from, after the WC in 2014 pretty much all of them were standardised to 105x68

Rather sadly the Premier League now has a mandated standard pitch size, and there are only a few outliers remaining (basically older stadia where the architecture precludes conformance). So any new stadium has to conform to the standard dimensions, e.g. the new White Hart Lane (whereas the old White Hart Lane had a smallish pitch, which was often touted as conveying some advantage to Tottenham, especially most recently when playing an energetic pressing style under Pochettino)

I remember Nottingham Forest (my team) had the widest pitch, and Arsenal (famous for playing dull boring football) had the narrowest.

However, the really interesting thing was I remember hearing an interview with an Arsenal player (possibly Lee Dixon) saying he knew just how to hit a soft pass into a shallow groove that ran along the side of the pitch - it looked like the ball was going to go out of play but it would catch this groove and move up the pitch instead.

Same, my old home team used to have a pitch on the smaller end of the spectrum and you could really see the impact it had on teams who were used to having space to build up plays.

The home fans were also much more in their faces (though it never helped seemingly when we fell off a cliff at the 80 minute mark to throw it all away...)

I think to add to the travel/comfort one - there's possibly also some advantage to doing all your matchday prep in a familiar environment where you spend a lot of time. I know from playing hockey as a student I felt much more calm and loose getting ready, warming up etc at our "home" facilities (where we'd train every week and play every other week) than doing the same at some other location (which we might only visit once a year). Something about the foreign surroundings can put you a little on edge or distract you.

Maybe the difference is minimal and melts away after the first ~15 minutes when you get into the game, but you can yourself into quite a big hole in the first 15 minutes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRx3KrQ83mc)

It's going to be an interesting natural (unnatural?) experiment to watch with NHL playoffs, with the teams playing in the "Bubble" in Edmonton and Toronto. No crowds, no noise, no pump-up-music. Would probably feel closer to an outdoor game.

But not the outdoor games they play in football stadiums.

Went to one. Was way Wilder than a typical hockey game

I must confess that the Hockey I played was much less cool than Ice Hockey :-)

Thanks for the video. I still have no idea of the rules, but it was fun to watch nevertheless.

Yeah it was a bit of a rollercoaster :-) I feel the same way with NFL, it's impressive and I like to see it but really I don't know what's going on tactically

It's also the fact that you're in a new sleeping enviroment. People tend not to sleep well in novel environments, called the 'first night effect', until they become comfortable to their new surroundings. So even if the athletes did custom-tailor their sleeping situation to be just like at home, ti still probably won't be good enough to give them a home-field level of sleep quality.


Home fans in European football and in South America are notoriously hostile, I've played in front of 3k crowd and its difficult, the professionals are obviously much stronger mentally but I can't imagine 70k crowd in derby match hating you. Americans sports fans are more like going to Disneyland compared to it.

The article is all about the Europe version where the teams don't need to have sleep overs or take plane but the football team's bus.

Also pitch sizes are not strict and both width/length vary.

The comment doesn't cover the article contents.

You’re missing the third: weather. Particularly in the NFL, some teams have high difficulty coping with foreign weather. The Patriots infamously are unable to play in the heat of Miami. Green Bay is extremely cold which often limits offenses used to warm weather. Seattle is routinely rainy and makes things easier on their secondary.

There is a third type: structural home field advantage. Examples of these include Boise State's bright blue turf, Colorado teams playing home games at higher altitudes than most other teams, and hockey boards that bounce the puck certain ways.

Weather, altitude, blue turf, hockey boards, shooting background, etc I'd generally lump in under comfort and familiarity.

However, structural advantages do exist. The best example is actually MLB, where each team's field is shaped differently. The dimensions of the park impact hitters to an extent that it makes sense to tailor the roster composition to the yard at the margins: lefty hitters who loft many short flyballs in Yankee Stadium will hit homers that would be easy outs in most places, the typical left fielder won't be able to cover enough ground defensively in Pittsburgh, etc.

I was watching Ken Burns' Baseball many years ago and this reminded me of an interesting bit of trivia:

Many years ago, fans were allowed in the outfield at baseball games and were held back by a rope. A home run was when the ball flew (or rolled) past the rope.

Since the "line" was just a flexible rope, when the home team was batting the crowd would push the rope forward to help raise the odds of there being a home run. When the away team was batting, they would pull the rope back to lessen the odds.

Also, reminds me of the old Gatorade commercials with Old Shaq were he talks about how basketball changed (in the future) and he says "And then they put in the moving backboard..."

Seahawks 12th man !!

A bit of a shameless plug, but a few years ago I Googled for scientific and statistical analyses of home field advantage and didn't find anything, so I ended up crunching the numbers for myself.

With the caveat that this is for baseball and not football, home field advantage has shrunk tremendously over the years. Just look at the curve of "field kindness" over the history of the MLB, it is insane how much of a difference the field you were visiting used to make!


(my favorite bit is the curve ball when it comes to fields that confer a statistical advantage to the visiting team!)

The rules of the game of baseball lend themselves to home team advantage where the order of team at-bats and substitution rules heavily favor the home team from a strategic standpoint if players are effectively deployed.

Park dimensions + team makeup is a combination that can contribute heavily to home team advantage. The short porches in Yankee Stadium (especially in right) have traditionally granted an advantage to the Yankees' often left handed sluggers. The more the field dimensions vary from the norm, the more the home team has an advantage to tailor their team makeup to exploit them. Parks with high walls, short porches, heavy prevailing winds, deep outfield fences, or absurd dimensions ( Think Willie Mays fielding center at the Polo Grounds) all present opportunities for exploitation.

While the Astros had more wins on the road than at home during the regular season from 2017-2019, their 2017 postseason home/away batting splits were wildly inconsistent. Boston had the best home record in MLB by six games during the 2018 season in which they were found to be relaying signals to batters. I'd suggest that home field presents a greater opportunity for outright cheating as well.

tbh, I don't really understand why Coors would be such an advantage. It's not like the visiting team doesn't also benefit from the additional ball flight.

Do you think it has to do with roster building? Like the Rockies don't spend money on pitching because pitching has less value at Coors, so they load up on offensive talent instead?

In addition to farther fly ball flight, the thinner air in Coors Field lessens the amount of distance a breaking ball moves when pitched. You'd think they would spend top dollar for every pitcher with a heavy 94+ mph sinker.

While other teams play a single (or handful of) series a year at Coors Field, the Rockies have to adjust to breaking pitches being more effective while playing away half the time which would be a bigger disadvantage than the ball not flying as far at away ballparks.

On average, Rockies players are better acclimated to playing at altitude; consider that they sometimes play back to back home series against different teams, while visiting teams play at most one consecutive series in Denver. This is why visiting teams tend to send their expected starting pitcher to Colorado a couple days early.

random speculation. Could cheating in ways you can only do at home contributed? Not sure how you could test it. but would be interesting

Freakonomics covered this in one of their podcasts. Their finding was that home-field advantage had more to do with the crowd influencing the calls of the officials. They would typically favor the home team. I wonder if this will change further with the use of VAR.


It's amazing that the MLB has the smallest home field advantage, despite the fact that baseball fields are actually pretty different from each other.

I would've thought stuff like being used to the visual backdrop behind a pitcher's arm would let you see a pitch better or knowing where to stand to best play a ball caroming off the outfield wall would give more of an advantage.

> It's amazing that the MLB has the smallest home field advantage

And given that, relative to the other sports, there's an actual difference in the rules and play of the game based on which team is at home (less so now hat the DH is in both leagues).

Speaking on crowds influencing officials, I think this has been obvious in MMA with no crowds.

There are times of little action where the ref separates fighters, typically as the inaction goes on the crowd boos more and more. With no crowd different strategies have been implemented to allow for a slower pace at times.

Also the commentators talk so loud in the empty arenas the players have said they can hear them and make adjustments based on their commentary.

Last week a commentator shouted out to stop a fight at a UFC event which has caused some turmoil afterwards as well.

Fans can also now hear all the strikes and slams to the mat watching at home because of the silence. It's made it a much better experience imo.

While all this is happening the judges are also sitting ring side so there is certainly a human factor of outside influence going on in their decision making. (MMA and boxing judges are notorious incompetent)

I'm really surprised we don't hear more about teams using tools like VR to play in the 'opponents turf'. One thing I noticed playing sports was how terrible we could feel just from not knowing where locker rooms are when one gets off a bus. I would love to see a study do something along the lines of, make players travel to opponents facilities a few times and check results.

This above result could easily take place in VR for the opponents facilities and arena. Model their locker rooms, field/court/etc, model screaming fans of the wrong color, model boos, etc etc. Essentially try and eliminate some home field advantage by making it feel more like home.

Not VR but it was reported the English rugby team were training in front of giant speakers to prepare for matches against Wales [0], who have a famously loud crowd and a stadium that amplifies it, especially if the roof is closed.

I'd be surprised if gridiron teams don't do something similar since crowd noise is genuinely a tactical issue there (it's more disruptive to the offense) in addition to a psychological one.

[0] https://www.skysports.com/rugby-union/news/12333/9699222/six...

Isn't this what visualisation is used for? To the point that swimmers can visualise their race within a second or less?

The Italian league games I've seen played in empty stadiums have been great. I think adding the sense of hearing back into the game due to lack of crowd noise does a lot for a team's coordination and thus quality of play. Maybe this is just my opinion based on a few matches, but there is a palpable difference in play.

Also a lot less flopping on the ground in fake agony. With no crowd to play to, players fall over and then get back up again. It's very refreshing to watch.

I think not being heckled, abused, or harassed will have a positive impact on most players. Though not all.

For some (and I mean in no uncertain terms, for black players and those from other minorities), it's probably a godsend, and that sense of 'relief' probably does have a measurable outcome (i.e. some players raising their standards, and others doing likewise to follow them).

OPTA and their like measure a lot of data points. So this hypothesis could probably be proved. Passing percentages, XG and assist rates for example, but I'd reckon individual running distances will be a particularly interesting metric to explore.

Any of those stats could go up or down for all players, but I do suspect there will be observable changes, because of these new playing conditions.

Agreed. It's been interesting to hear how the players communicate and organise each other from a fan perspective as well - it's not something we usually have access to.

I was under the impression that they fell over in agony for the refs, not the crowd? But then I don't know much about soccer.

Perhaps it's harder to justify internally if the only people watching know exactly what you just did? I've always been surprised by the shamelessness of soccer dives, I definitely don't understand it.

A totally subjective answer here, but I think it's because of the speed the game is played at.

It's very easy to trip when sprinting at full speed while concentrating on a single object. The slightest external force will put you on the ground very quickly.

Rugby, Gridiron and Ice Hockey players will also know that, but frequent falls under pressure are expected by the rules. In soccer, it's a lot more subtle (shirt pulling, various rules around obstruction, the height at which you keep your hands... all sorts). There's plenty of opportunity fool a referee, so you will instinctively try to do so. Especially if your style of play generally draws opposing players into fouling you regularly already.

I'd say that the introduction of video referees (VAR) are probably more effective in stopping that kind of behaviour, than empty stadiums. But you'd never know.

I also wonder if player performance has measurably improved (or degraded), when playing regularly without an audience.

I think this is interesting and something I've thought about since the return of football.

Jurgen Klopp was always trying to get the crowd engaged and pumped up because he believes it has a huge effect on how his Liverpool team play. Without the crowd they seem to be missing that extra 1% of intensity that made them incredible pre-lockdown.

Whereas Manchester City probably don't feed off the crowd as much as Liverpool do. Manchester City are all about rehearsed routines so they may even find it easier without a crowd as they'll be able to communicate much easier.

Hard to say because by the start of lockdown Liverpool had basically wrapped up the title. Their performance dropped after they were mathematically champions.

Yeah I agree with this. They were in top form and the crowd obviously helped. Anfield is massive for the team with supporters around. But after having such a long break due to the lockdown can change the dynamics. Its hard to produce that kind of form after a hiatus. And yes, maybe there even was something about already having won the league mathematically. It can calm the players and lower the intensity slightly.

I can understand this. Portsmouth at home is pretty loud and vocal. After watching Pompey fail in the play offs, it might have helped, but then again that's probably because Kenny Jacket football style is horrible. #JacketOut

Very interesting.

I don't know whether this study measures only the outcome or contributing factors. For example, in Germany, anti-COVID measurements lead to the following result: way fewer to now discussions with the umpire. Pack forming has been forbidden. Empty stadiums are only part of the measures but, in my opinion, not the contributing factors. These factors contributed massively to the pace of the game. And if no players are trying to influence the umpire - well, you get different results.

Familiarity of the stadium also count, I mean you are going to play in an arena 19 times vs once, there will be differences.

disadvantage for extrinsic motivators relative to internal is that work does not persist long once external rewards are removed https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation#Extrinsic_motivatio...

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