Is Home Advantage Gone Without A Crowd?

Despite the global pandemic, elite level sports has been able to proceed relatively unaffected for almost a year now. Most leagues had to shut down for a few months but quickly resumed 'normal' business. However, there is one glaring thing missing from every game and match: the fans. To ensure that sports were safe, crowds were quickly banned from attending competitions leaving the stands completely empty. In their absence, the silence was deafening, so deafening in fact that most sports covered it up with fake crowd noises, something I hated at first but learned to appreciate. Recently, fans have been allowed to return in small quantities and for me, it has brought life back to sports. Although I have to say that seeing 100.000 people attending the Indy 500 made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Hopefully, the days of empty stands and quiet grounds are behind us and thinking about that, I wondered: what was the impact of the empty stadiums on performance? Generally, this might be a really difficult question to ask. It is almost impossible to measure how the lack of fans affect players' emotions, motivation and if it effected different players in different ways. However, there is one part of performance that we can analyze: home advantage. We know that home advantage exist, home teams win more games than visiting teams. However, is that still the case when you play in an empty stadium?

Home advantage is a well known, well researched topic. The team playing at home is more likely to win a game than the visiting team even when corrected for the quality of the teams that are playing. The effect can be quite strong as well, for instance, in a recent NBA season (with crowds), teams won only 41.3% of their games played away on the road. Research suggests that there are several factors to contribute to home advantage. For instance, familiarity with the venue, travel effects, referee bias but also crowd support. Several studies have indicated that having a crowd supporting you can increase your own performance by making your more motivated and push you to spend more energy and effort. This makes a lot of sense, I would be more motivated if I knew that if I scored a last-minute buzzer beater, I got to celebrate it in front of my own fans. On top of that, having a supporting crowd can persuade the referee make decisions in your favour more often suggesting that aggressive booing or shouting 'ref you suck' might actually be helping your team gain an edge (not that I am saying you should do this). It would therefore make sense that the absence of crowds at games would influence how likely the home team is to win by lowering their motivation and energy and possibly removing the referee bias towards the home team.

This is exactly what researchers in Brazil set out to investigate (Correia-Oliveira & Andrade-Souza, 2021). They analyzed the results of soccer games in seven European leagues that were forced to stop their season midway because of Covid and resumed those seasons later without fans attending games. This way, you get a direct comparison between the home advantage with and without fans controlling for things like team compositions. Not only did they confirm that a home advantage existed in these leagues when there were fans in the stadiums (they looked as far back as four seasons to confirm that) but they found that the home advantage effect was less strong or even disappeared the moment fans were banned from attending games. Look at this quote from their research:

"The values in phase 2 [no fans] were lower than that in phase 1 [with fans] in four of the seven leagues and divisions analysed, with numbers below 50% [win percentage for home teams] in the first and second divisions of the German and English leagues, respectively, representing no advantage to play at home. The reduced or no advantage achieved by the teams playing at home in phase 2 of the 2019/2020 season, suggests the home advantage may have been influenced in parts by the lack of crowd support"

What this quote states is that in a majority of the leagues that were analyzed, the home advantage was less strong when there were no fans attending games. On top of that, in some of these leagues the effect completely disappeared, giving no advantage to the team playing at home whatsoever.


Sports has had to change dramatically throughout the pandemic and not for the better. However, I find it fascinating to see how some parts of this terrible situation can be used to better understand how the world of elite athletics works. The pandemic has given us a unique ability to research the effect of crowds on sport games and the conclusion is quite positive: fans matter! If you go and attend games as a fan, and you make enough noice and support your team, you will make it more likely for your team to win.

References:

Carlos Rafaell Correia-Oliveira & Victor Amorim Andrade-Souza (2021): Home advantage in soccer after the break due to COVID-19 pandemic: does crowd support matter?, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/1612197X.2021.1934716


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