Sports junkies, bookies and statisticians have long pondered this question. Does home field advantage really exist? Today we’re going to dive into the world of sports and find out if home field advantage is real, and if so, what causes it.
What Is Home Field Advantage?
The term “home field advantage” is used to describe the advantage that a home team has over a visiting team thanks to playing in front of supportive fans in a familiar environment/stadium. The term can also be used in “best-of” playoff tournaments (e.g., The World Series) that is given to the team which is set to play one more game at home than their opponent if all necessary games are played.
In other situations, the term can also be used to describe games played at a neutral site; as the rules of some sports make certain provisions for visiting and home teams. An example of this can be in seen in baseball, where the ‘home’ team will bat second in each inning, allowing the “visiting” team to bat first.
Is Home Field Advantage Real?
A study by Stephen Barsky of Temple University and Barry Schwartz of the University of Chicago in 1977 claim it is indeed real. A passage in the opening statements of their study states that, “…the very conditions which regulate man’s passions and conduct are those which inspire and propel him to the most extraordinary levels of achievement.” In short, home field advantage is a real phenomenon.
In the book The Hidden Game of Baseball, the authors found that the home team on average wins 54% of the time. Another study, from the Baseball Research journal, looked at all MLB games played from 1901 to 2002. It found that the average seasonal difference between a team’s road and home winning percentage was .082
Home Field Advantage in other professional sports is just as common. In the book Scorecasting, penned by Toby Moscowitz and Jon Wertheim, they tallied the percentage of home games won by teams in all major US sports:
What Causes Home Field Advantage?
A few reasons are often cited; lack of travel stress (jet lag), familiarity with home turf, what football fans call “the 12th man” can contribute, but establishing the biggest factor isn’t easy and depends on the sport.
In the case of familiarity, one study of 7 baseball, 17 basketball, and 13 hockey teams that moved into new stadiums (without changing cities) between 1987 and 2001 showed a significant reduction in home field advantage in the season following their move. However, a few studies have shown that MLB teams tend to do better in a new stadium. One obvious case of home field advantage stemming from stadium familiarity is the Colorado Rockies, who consistently display the largest difference between home and away records of any MLB team. This is because the Rockies have acclimated to playing in the high-altitude Coors Field.
The referees can also play a part. Home teams tend to get slightly preferential treatment from the officials, whether it’s a called foul in basketball, a strike in baseball, or in soccer, a foul that results in a penalty kick. In soccer’s case, a referee has a much larger impact on a game’s outcome than refs in other sports, which is why home HFA is a much larger factor in soccer than in any other professional sport.
Though, referees don’t decide to give the home team an advantage consciously. Rather, by being fallible humans like everyone else, they absorb the emotion of the home crowd. In smaller stadiums, the referees are even more susceptible to the effects of HFA. This is because the crowd is sitting closer to the field, which offers a bigger chance of officials getting caught up in the home-crowd’s emotion.
BBC (2007-05-06). “Study Reveals Referees‘ Home Bias”.
Moskowitz, Tobias J., and L. Jon Wertheim, “What’s Really Behind Home Field Advantage”, Sports Illustrated, 17 January 2011, pp. 65–72.