Fans not required for home-field advantage, study shows
University of Reading finds long-established home-team advantage still applies to empty stadiums amid pandemic
Every sports team relishes having home-field advantage — that well-established boost to the team's chances of winning that comes with playing on home turf.
But when the coronavirus pandemic brought about a new kind of playing experience in stadiums and arenas, with no fans allowed, researchers at the University of Reading in the U.K. wanted to see if the home-field advantage disappeared along with the spectators.
They examined results for 6,481 professional soccer games in 17 countries before and after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, and made a surprising finding.
The home-field advantage was still there — to a slightly smaller degree — even without boisterous crowds of fans to cheer them on and heckle their opponents, said economics professor James Reade.
"You might expect it to be a lot less, especially given there are no fans there shouting and cheering," Reade told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.
The study found the share of matches ending in a home win fell from 43.8 per cent before the shutdown to 41.2 per cent after.
Home-field advantage has been attributed in the past to things like player comfort and familiarity with the environment, fatigue among the travelling team and referee influence.
When German soccer teams couldn't win their matches following a return to play in closed stadiums, people argued "that the players weren't familiar with playing without fans," said Reade.
"And lo and behold, once they became more familiar, they began to win more home games."
Yet the results as a whole over the 17 countries examined didn't show a clear slump in home-game wins once the fans were spirited away.
Fewer yellow cards
But one key difference shown in games played to the empty home stadiums is the number of yellow card penalties issued to away teams. The incidence of these decreased by one-third of a yellow card for away teams when compared to home teams, suggesting that without the fans to complain if a foul goes unpunished, referees go easier on travelling teams.
"There's … quite a bit of evidence out there about social pressure on referees. So when there's a crowd present, it does have some kind of influence," said Reade.
Previous studies have shown that when referees watch games on video, they call more fouls if the sound of the crowd is turned on compared to when the sound is off, he said.
Researchers have also looked at injury time at the end of games and found that if the home team is losing with a bigger crowd, it gets a bit more injury time at the end to turn things around, said Reade.
"So there's a bit of evidence out there that referees are influenced. It's not obvious [whether] it's conscious. It could well be subconscious."
Reade said sports leagues could take lessons from these findings on the importance of insulating referees from outside pressures. One way to do so is through technology, including video assistant referee (VAR), which allows referees to rewatch critical plays before making a decision.
"That takes the pressure off the referee for making these hard calls in the action under all that pressure," he said.
Written by Brandie Weikle. Interview produced by Kate Cornick.