Assessing Football Home Field Advantage without Fans

by Team Del Genio

Saturday, Oct 31, 2020
It is generalized that oddsmakers assign a standard home-field advantage in football of three points to the host team. The coronavirus pandemic has challenged this working assumption, with many football teams playing in empty stadiums. Even with limited fans allowed in some cities, it is unlikely that their cheers and boos have the same impact on the game as a jam-packed stadium of emotionally-charged fans in a playoff game. 

How should oddsmakers adjust in the pandemic when taking into account less-than-full stadiums?

Even asking the question illuminates that these circumstances are not so different than situations that oddsmakers commonly encounter. Assigning odds to a home team without a vocal or vibrant fan base is not unusual in football. It would be more accurate to suggest that certain home field situations offer their team more of an advantage because their fan base is consistently louder and more disruptive to the opposing team. 

Every oddsmaker would likely agree that the home team edge is not as strong with capacity limitations to audiences due to COVID concerns. The challenge for oddsmakers (and then bettors) is determining what, if any, home-field advantage still exists for the home team. 

Some observers have gone so far as to say that COVID has eliminated the home field edge in football. The current win/loss numbers of home versus road teams offer support for that position. However, these observers should be careful of the limited sample size. There are three reasons why home teams retain an edge even without a cheering crowd backing them up.

(1) Familiarity. Home teams simply have more experience playing in their stadium and on their field. This familiarity breeds comfort. A lack of familiarity plants the seeds for potential discomfort. 

This intangible certainly applies to how the home team feels inside their building. However, the weather and climate also play a significant role that should very much be considered. Dome teams may not be as comfortable playing outdoors and on grass fields. Cold weather teams may not be as comfortable playing in hot weather. Teams used to playing in sunny conditions may struggle in the cold. 

(2) Situational. Teams playing at home get to stay in their own beds. They stick to their routines. Road teams are in hotels and unfamiliar environments. Sometimes the visiting team has been away from home for an extended period of time. The preparation for the road team may have already put them at a disadvantage relative to their opponent even before setting foot on the field that lacks a cheering section. 

(3) Territoriality. Do home teams feel a higher sense of purpose in defending their home turf? Some psychological studies suggest this is the case. It is fair to assume that there is a higher expectation for teams playing at home to perform well. There perhaps is a built-in excuse for road teams to underperform when playing away from their “home base.” Perhaps for some visiting teams, these negative expectations create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In conclusion, it is reasonable for oddsmakers do not assign full value to home teams when playing in stadiums without enough cheering fans to impact the play of the visiting team. Maybe this adjustment should have already been made in environments that are not as loud and rabid as others?

However, bettors beware if they conclude that a home team no longer retains “any” edge when playing at home.

Good luck - TDG. 

All photographic images used for editorial content have been licensed from the Associated Press.

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