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Column: How “no fan” sporting events might affect home field advantage

Hint: It’s not the be-all-end-all

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Northern Illinois at Ohio State Photo by Khris Hale/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A month ago, it felt as though we might have a truncated baseball season. Now, Major League Baseball seems to be the only league still unable to reach an agreement between ownership and players for how to actually make that season happen. Yes, there’s been a lot of hope recently when it comes to sports, including:

  • NHL Playoffs - maybe even in Columbus!
  • The NBA in Disney World!
  • NFL football starting with the schedule as planned in the fall
  • College football actually happening

Plus, with golf on right now, along with NASCAR (if you’re into that sort of thing) and The Basketball Tournament set for July, the collective constriction that we’ve felt as the world has turned upside down in recent months is starting to loosen, because we have our old standby, sports, back at last.

Of course, the world couldn’t change as radically as it did already in 2020 and there not be any repercussions for the sports arena. Because, despite the fact we’re getting these sports we love back, they’re going to look very different this summer, fall, winter and probably beyond.

That’s because, given concerns over the spread of COVID-19, fans will not be allowed at most of these events. In fact, we’d likely need not only a viable treatment option but also a vaccine for COVID-19 before the large, 100,000-plus person public gatherings we’re used to would be able to come back.

The NCAA, leagues, and individual schools are trying to work out what fans in the stands could look like this fall for college football, with general projections hovering at one-third to one-fifth capacity. That means crowds of maybe 20,000 at Ohio State football games, with a significant allocation thereof dedicated to students. What that means for decades-long season ticket holders remains to be seen.

Reduced or no crowds will have an assured affect on home field advantage, especially in the case of projected NBA games which will all take place in a single venue with no fans. So what exactly could that look like?

Obviously home field advantage looks very different for different sports, with the perception being that basketball might be a more intense environment that might lead to a distinct advantage, for example. We saw how that played out with home-court in Big Ten play for men’s basketball this past season, with the home team going 178-57 (76%) overall. However, at least in the Big Ten, football wasn’t far behind, with the home team going 92-34 (73%) in 2019.

Ohio State fans (and those of every Power-5 school), who traditionally have more home than away football games by virtue of their nonconference schedules, might start to panic a little about a lack of crowd. Yes, it certainly has an impact when the crowd is almost silent on 3rd-and-1 for the Buckeyes on offense and raucous on defense. However, fans are just one factor in home field advantage.

But what about those other factors? First, consider the logistical advantage home teams hold. Student athletes don’t have to travel across the Midwest or the country at large. They get to sleep in their own bed or the same team hotel they stay at for every game. That added time creates a disadvantage for visiting teams (imagine the toll traveling from Rutgers to Nebraska must take. Or maybe I’m just trying to give the Scarlet Knights a break over here).

There’s also a less familiar, spatial awareness piece. Familiarity with the field might play a bigger factor than we expect. The most obvious example in this case is the field surface. While most college football programs have shifted to turf from grass – which is definitely a shift for players – there are still a couple grass fields even in the Big Ten, including Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern and Michigan State. As an aside, Michigan State installed turf in 1969, but went back to grass back in 2002.

Then there’s the weather. A Florida team traveling to Wisconsin for a night game might get a rude awakening, just as a Wisconsin team traveling to Florida might struggle in an early-season noon game in the heat. Chicago’s always windy, so teams traveling to Northwestern might be forced to favor a run-first offense. Not that these considerations matter so much for hockey or basketball. However, one temporal factor which affects even basketball teams is time zone – something we’ll see when Ohio State travels to Oregon this fall. Also, remember that time Northwestern beat a Stanford squad (featuring Christian McCaffrey, no less) on an 11 a.m. CDT kickoff?

There are other spatial factors which also affect home-field advantage that relate solely to the venue. In fact, a 2002 study from the Journal of Sports Sciences found that relocated teams have a reduced home field advantage. For example, if the orientation of a field is north-south, and a team plays a game on one positioned east-west (or on a different axis), spatial awareness is significantly reduced.

Locker rooms and other facilities also play a part. Visitors’ locker rooms are notably more uncomfortable than those of the home team, including, as has been reported significantly, the pink locker rooms of Kinnick Stadium at Iowa, painted thus to make the opponents less aggressive (cue the eye rolls).

There’s also the small but relevant argument that away teams have less depth than home teams, especially in football, since coaches will dress less people for travel. However, barring a severe and bizarre set of injuries and ejections, it’s unlikely that lack of depth would regularly play a significant role for an away team compared to a home team.

Finally, there’s the issue of officiating, which, as cited in a 2017 study from Harvard, is continuously biased toward the home team. While refs are supposed to be unbiased, they are only human like the rest of us after all (sorry if there are any bots reading this). However, more experienced officials do tend to be less one-sided than their less-experienced counterparts.

So what does that mean for the sports seasons we’re heading to? Well, the home benefits of the crowd certainly go away, but there are a lot of other home field advantages that home teams could take advantage of. Finding ways to leverage home facilities or capitalize on a lack of travel time could continue to fine-tune parts of the home field advantage teams never really acknowledged.

For projected scenarios like the NBA is preparing to embark on, most of these factors go out the window. Playing at a neutral site is just that – neutral. There’s less bias from refs from a home team perspective, the facilities are new to everyone, there’s no travel between games and, in this case, there’s no crowds, so teams closer to Disney World don’t have a distinct advantage.

I suppose the bottom line is that there will be things that are weird about this season. Home field advantage might look different without throngs of cheering or booing fans, but we have to be excited about the return of sports – because the first step to getting fans back in the stands en masse is to prove we can keep everyone healthy on the field and on the court.

Bye for now.