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Sounds Good Explores the Home-Field Advantage Effect in the Age of COVID-19

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Without fans in the stands, Wann says, the home-field advantage is far less potent of a phenomenon.

In the next installment of Sounds Good's sport psychology series, Tracy Ross and Dan Wann discuss the science behind home-field/court advantages and how the empty seats of COVID-era games affected that phenomenon. 

Home-field advantages are more than a bit of hometown luck. Wann explains the phenomenon is the result of social facilitation and a player's dominant response. "Social facilitation is basically research that tries to figure out how an audience impacts performance. If we have other people watching, do they perform better? Do they perform worse?"

"It doesn't necessarily have to be within a sports setting. It can be in an educational, business, theatre, or musical production environment. The audience could help or hurt. What it comes down to is that individual's dominant response," Wann says. "A dominant response is how well does that person engage in that behavior. How likely are they to be successful at that act?"

Wann uses the example of free-throw percentages to illustrate players' dominant responses. "If you have [a player] shoot 100 free throws by themselves, and they miss more than they make, their dominant response will be failure. If they make more than they miss, their dominant response would be success."

"What happens according to this theory," he continues, "is when an individual performs an act in front of an audience, that audience increases that individual's level of arousal. It makes our blood pressure go up a little bit, our heart races, and that arousal, in turn, leads the dominant response. It brings out our default or natural tendencies."

In the 2020, 2021 world of sports with little to no fans watching the game in-person, Wann says the dominant response curves tend to flatten. High-performing players who were likely to feed off the audience will not perform with the same elevated drive an audience promotes. Alternatively, less successful players who tend to perform poorly in front of an audience are likely to have a better chance of a good performance with empty seats and stands. 

So, does the home-field advantage actually exist in the world of COVID-era sports? Wann says no. "Anecdotally, anyone who's had the opportunity to experience a sporting event in the last 12 months has felt that it's different. It feels different in person. It sounds different when you're watching it on TV or listening to it on the radio. What's the research say?"

"I've read recently that the past season in the NFL was the first season in the history of that league where the home team did not win more games than the home league. You could put the period right there," Wann says. "We know the power of the NFL home-field advantage. The NFL knows that power; that's why they reward teams with better records with home-field advantages in the playoffs. It sure does make a big difference."

Wann uses the 2021 Super Bowl as an example of NFL home-field advantage. "The way the Buccaneers manhandled the Chiefs surprised a lot of people, including the Buccaneers. Does that happen if that's the second game of the season and there are 500 people in the stands? Probably not, because we know that the fans matter. The home-field advantage is just that powerful of an effect. The research suggests that it's about a 60% swing to the home team. It's the same for colleges as it is professional, women's sports, men's sports, individual sports, team sports, it doesn't matter. If fans aren't there, there goes the 60% advantage."

The proximity of fans also plays a role in players' performance. "Some stadiums will have a track around the football field. Others don't have that. The fans are much closer to the action. In those stadiums that don't have the track, the home-field advantage is much greater."

Fans certainly significantly impact players' performances and game outcomes, but Wann attributes a team's success to one additional factor. "Research suggests that about 90 to 95% of the home-field advantage is a function of the fact that the refs are biased in favor of the home team. There's a lot of really powerful evidence for this fact."

"Do people try to downplay the hometown advantage? Yeah, I would imagine that the organizations that represent the referees and the officials and the umpires probably try to downplay that effect because the research of the last ten years shows that, yeah, you're the reason the home team wins more games than you would think statistically they should. It's because the refs are biased in their decisions," Wann concludes. 

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