This football season has already been weird for a lot of reasons — like how it’s already basically Halloween (or at least totally appropriate to watch Hocus Pocus) and the Big Ten is just about to kick off. Or how NFL teams are now playing games at like 4 p.m. CT on Mondays. Or Tuesdays at any time. Because what is time anymore, anyway?
But perhaps the weirdest part of the actual games that have already been played is the eerie silence of empty stadiums filled with cutouts of only the most diehard fans, the only noise coming from recordings of fans who long ago (or maybe not that long ago, who really knows?) were actually in those very seats. As if we needed more things to distract Mike Leach beyond cooling his cup of coffee, Mississippi State’s new head coach had words about the cardboard fans gracing SEC stadiums:
“I have to be honest, I haven’t quite gotten the hang of the cutout people in the stands. I mean that’s an episode of Twilight Zone...Now all of a sudden, we have these people frozen in time sitting there in the stadium with enthusiastic expressions on their face, but they can’t move...I don’t even know how they decide the seating. Do the fake people have a lottery for where they sit? Because I know this, some of those fake people have way better seats than the other ones. I want to be one of those fake people on the 50-yard line about row 12, but you know some of them are still up in the rafters you know. In this day in age, in these funny times, even a fake person can get screwed.”
(sorry for the long quote, but it was worth it, right?)
In terms of the cut out fans: It’s not the worst idea in the world, but it is a little creepy. At least their appearance in this weird time gave us full, two-minute commercials from Bud Light about a cardboard fan finding his way home to get his favorite beer.
Then there’s the noise question. While NFL stadiums are using piped in noise from NFL Films games, it’s not like Ohio State or other Big Ten schools have similar repositories of professionally curated, high-quality audio bytes for every occasion. Nonetheless, Big Ten schools will be allowed to pipe in band and crowd noise this season in otherwise empty stadiums.
The lack of crowd noise will certainly be felt in the Big Ten especially, with stadiums like Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and, obviously, Ohio Stadium being severely impacted. While players’ families are permitted to attend games (at the discretion of individual programs), even a couple hundred folks in the stands — socially distanced and in masks — won’t make quite the noise impact we’re used to.
The Ohio State Buckeyes are used to winning in quiet stadiums. Just ask Michigan. (For those unfamiliar, the Big House is notoriously quiet because the physics of the structure dissipate the sound). Alright, enough cracks at Michigan. However, the question remains of what playing in the quiet stadiums does to home field advantage?
Home field advantage in college football is definitely a real thing (though, perhaps, not as apparent as it is in college basketball). In fact, the home winning percentage is generally greater than 60% and, in 2019, was greater than 65%. In the Big Ten in 2019, that advantage was much greater, with the home team going 92-34 (73%) throughout the course of the entire regular season. Oh, and Ohio State won 100% of its home games in 2019. It would make sense that the teams with the best home field win percentages are also the teams with the highest overall win percentages — like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Penn State.
Thus far in the NFL season, we’ve witnessed prolific scoring at a per team average of 25.7 points per game — a trend which, if it were to continue, would be a league record. While there are numerous factors at play, including how a lack of off-season conditioning may have favored the offense this season and the general, broader trend toward higher scoring offenses in the NFL, empty stadiums definitely have played a role. As an example, Aaron Rodgers’ hard count has been particularly effective on the road this season, when the quarterback would normally have to rely on a silent count when facing the home team’s defense.
Beyond these on-field factors which are less in play sans crowd, there are logistical advantages for the home team, like not needing to travel, and spatial advantages, like understanding the orientation or surface of the field more intimately. The amount these forces play remains to be seen. In the NFL, home teams are 47-42 (53%) so far this season, which is actually on track to be slightly better than the 132-123 (52%) overall home record in 2019-20.
When it comes to Ohio State’s schedule, the lack of fans may be especially important for the Buckeyes this year as they have a traditionally very challenging matchup on the road at Penn State. Beaver Stadium is widely considered the most intimidating stadium in the Big Ten (the white outs still strike fear in my very heart). The Buckeyes did fall in State College in 2016 in one such white out.
While home field advantage can translate to obvious changes in teams’ records, there’s also the question of what the lack of fans will do to the TV audience. Piped in crowd noise has felt relatively natural throughout the NBA bubble, as well as the opening weeks of NFL football. However, what’s proven odd are the rows and rows of empty bleachers in the background of every shot.
Finally, there’s the commentary on PR. Not having fans may prove to be a good move for public perception. SEC schools haven’t been shy about having fans at stadiums (the Texas A&M vs. Florida matchup earlier this month looked like a crowd from a normal season). Watching maskless students crowded in the student section with their arms around one another’s shoulders ahead of kickoff, one could almost see COVID-19 spreading among the crowd.
Saturday will certainly be an odd experience for an Ohio State football team which still boasts a crowd of tens of thousands at its spring scrimmages, but for a team with so much talent, a home field advantage is not even close to the most powerful weapon in its arsenal. And from a fan’s perspective, it’ll just be nice to have Ohio State football back — even if we’re left tailgating from our living rooms.