‘Weird’ empty stadiums alter the idea of home advantage

Word that the NBA still is considering Walt Disney World as a site for games made me think back to my days covering the NBA summer league in Orlando. The public wasn’t invited, so spectators mostly included coaches, NBA front-office types and media. The lack of cheers or jeers made for an emotionally detached experience, more like a high-level pickup game than professional competition.

I get the same feeling watching live sports on TV now. There are no spectators because of the novel coronavirus. I welcome the entertainment, but the circumstances make me feel a strange kind of existential sports angst.

If there are no fans on site watching, what is the point of games? The answer, TV revenue, only adds to the emptiness of it all.

If observers feel that way watching empty stadiums on TV, consider how it might affect participants. It upends the entire concept of “home-field advantage” because fans are such a big part of that. Without them, there’s no life in the building. Is that really such an advantage for the home team?

We’ll soon find out because every league playing now, and all the ones planning to return, don’t include fans in the stands.

“It would definitely be weird at first, just because football is such a high-energy game,” Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver said. “A lot of sports are, but football especially. We feed off that energy. Playing with no fans, it would definitely suck, honestly.

“But understanding kind of the circumstances we are in, this is a very unique situation, and we have to do it if it comes to it.”

It likely will come to it. The sports leagues that are holding events now, from Korean baseball to NASCAR, are doing so without spectators. It probably will be the same for American football, baseball, basketball and hockey. The pandemic is an enormous challenge to contain and -- based on what public health experts are saying and the scattershot response of government leaders -- it’s improbable that fans will be in stadiums this summer or even in the fall.

No spectators allowed is part of every publicized plan for continuing or starting games. Home advantage is baked into our sports, including the betting markets. What happens when the main element of that advantage is missing?

I’m intrigued to see how it plays out in empty stadiums. It won’t apply to NBA games if they end up being played at neutral sites. The NHL reportedly is considering a similar plan. But MLB, college football and the NFL still are pondering games at home sites without fans.

Home advantage is not a small thing. It’s a proven phenomenon with real effects. And it’s not just reflected by superior home records, which could be explained by the unequal quality of teams.

2017 study published in the Annals of Applied Statistics found that, in the four most popular American sports leagues, there's a higher probability of the home team beating an opponent of equal strength. The likelihood is highest in the NBA (62 percent). It's 58.9 percent in the NFL, 55.5 percent in the NHL and 54 percent in MLB.

No live audience shouldn’t change some of the practical advantages of playing at home. There still be hot weather for outdoor games in the South. Baseball fielders still have an edge in the familiar dimensions and weather conditions of their home park. Players benefit from playing games near their homes, and road teams are disadvantaged by the effects of travel and being away from home.

But some of the practical advantages of home games are lost without fans. Crowd noise can lead to pre-snap penalties for road football teams and make communication difficult. A noisy arena makes it harder for visiting basketball coaches to call out instructions.

Those advantages are missing without spectators. More important, I think, are the lost psychological benefits for teams playing games at their place.

Oliver’s comment about drawing energy from loud home fans is often heard from players and coaches after games. They say the opposite when poor performance creates a quiet building or, worse, inspires scorn from their supporters.

Visiting players can lose their poise in rowdy venues. A 2011 study of college athletes published in the North American Journal of Psychology concluded the performance of baseball pitchers is hurt by jeers from fans.

Favorable calls from referees also are part of the home edge. The 2011 book "Scorecasting" compared European soccer games in empty stadiums (they happened pre-pandemic) with those with fans. The authors argued that referee bias, across all sports, largely explains home advantage. Further statistical research showed that MLB umpires expand their strike zone for home pitchers in high-leverage situations.

Home teams might lose most of those advantages without fans in the stadium. The idea of home boosters being a big part of creating an intimidating environment is so ingrained that we’ve built myths around it. The crowd generically is known as the 12th man and, for some teams, that support is a big part of their identities.

There’s the “12th Man” at Texas A&M (a trademark later borrowed by the NFL’s Seahawks). The Tigers of Clemson and LSU both play in Death Valley. College football games will especially suffer without fans, who are a major part of the best spectacle in sports.

Spectators improve the atmosphere at all games. The hum of crowd noise is so essential that ESPN added it for Korean baseball telecasts. Fox's Joe Buck said the network may do the same for NFL broadcasts if there are no fans at games.

Empty stadiums for games are the least of concerns for sports during a pandemic. The safety of participants should be at the top of the list. It’s going to take a monumental effort to play games without players, coaches and support staff being infected by the coronavirus.

It’s weird to watch games on TV without fans. It’s an adjustment for participants. We’ll also have to alter our idea of home advantage until it’s safe to allow fans back in the building.

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