Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On The Mystery of Home-Field Advantage

Not long ago, I engaged in a heated discussion about the impact a voluminous marching band could have on a college sporting event. A good marching band, I said, was worth approximately 2 1/2 to 3 points on the scoreboard for the home team. Now, I was not being entirely serious (there may have been alcohol involved); I have no scientific basis for this assessment, and I am most likely overvaluing the importance of an overweight tuba player, but I was getting at what is, to me, the most baffling issue in sports: The home-field advantage. My alma mater is now touting a study that shows its stadium is the loudest in the country. And I know Penn State is doing this, in part, as an excuse to move the students to the end zone, so as to charge more money for seat licenses. But it raises a serious question--why, in this era of specialization and precision and sports science, can no one seem to overcome the challenge of playing on the road? I mean, it's just noise--the physical impact of a crowd is non-existent. Hand signals can substitute for audibles; maybe one or two snaps per game might be directly impacted, but that's hardly enough to account for a three-point spread. Yet it does.

So why is one of the most colossal quandaries in competitive history something we now just take for granted, without any real empirical explanation?

I'm thinking about this now not just because of Penn State. I'm thinking about this because I've been watching the NBA playoffs, where, it seems, no one can seem to win consistently outside of their hometown's recreational domicile. Even teams that are clearly better than their opposition seem to have a certain expectation that they will lose at least one of two games on the road, and yet no one seems to know why this happens. And it is impossible to measure. Is it the travel itself? Is it the unfamiliar surroundings? Is it the crowd? We don't know. We can't ever know. If there's even been a thorough study of the reasons for a home-field advantage in sports, I've never seen it. I'd like to see it, but I have a feeling it doesn't exist.

I mean, I realize that business travel is not a particularly pleasant experience, unless you are a character in an Ivan Reitman film; but these teams are not traveling coach.* You would think they would adjust their sleep patterns and their practice habits and find ways to negate the home team's competitive advantage in terms of off-court/field factors. And you would think that noise and hostility would not rattle a group of athletes who have endured immense pressure to succeed for their entire lives. And yet it does. And even as sports becomes more wedded with statistical exactitude, this is one element that no one seems able to control. Not even the tuba player.

*Speaking of which, do professional athletes accumulate their own frequent-flier miles? If so, Jamie Moyer must have trillions. I'm guessing the dude could probably use his miles to purchase a Marriott in Mexico City.


Cookie Jarvis said...

It took me a long time to find this, but I vividly remembered reading it in high school. It's not exactly a "study," but it discusses a lot of the central issues.


WarningTrack said...

It's the effect it has on officiating. It's most prominent in the NBA, but I suspect it exists in other sports to lesser degrees, those degrees possibly being related to the officials' proximity to the fans. In basketball, they're right on top of you. In football, not so much.

I know some studies have been down in this regard for soccer, but I'm not sure if anyone's studied such things elsewhere. It'd be hard to weed through the data, anyway; you could certainly measure home team penalties versus road team penalties, but that wouldn't necessarily demonstrate an officiating bias so much as confirm that something like the crowds make up the difference.

Anyway, I think that's probably the best possible answer here, though I'm also inclined to believe that it's about fifty things working in concert. All the really obvious effects have already been figured out; survivor bias suggests that anything which still baffles us has no clear-cut explanation and is probably a cumulative thing that is well-nigh impossible to pin down or summarize properly.

Michael Weinreb said...

I do recall that story, Cookster, and I agree, WT, that officiating does have a major impact, especially in the NBA. The only point of my ramble, I suppose, is that it seems like this is something we should be talking about and analyzing more often than we do, rather than just taking it for granted. By taking it for granted, doesn't it just give officials license to allow an unspoken amount of latitude to the home team? As fans (and media), why should we just accept this?

WarningTrack said...

We shouldn't, but I think many fans do because they like it. They like the idea that they play a role in the outcome of the game, and I think they think it's sort of fair; that die-hard fans really deserve those extra few points more than more casual fan-bases. We can see a hint of this in the die-hard's contempt for fair-weather fans.

I think one of the main reasons we haven't put more time into discovering this, again leaving aside the possibility that it's not a dozen factors that we can't really summarize, is that there might not be a lot of benefit in figuring this out. It's not valuable to the teams themselves to know exactly why they have a home field advantage unless the answer is one of several things within their control, like unusual field conditions. If someone sinks $10 million into a study only to learn that it's about intimidating officials around the margins, they only gain the knowledge for its own sake, really.

So, basically, I would guess that we don't know because the people in a position to try to find out either think there's no one reason, and/or the people with the most to gain from these studies (IE: the teams) think it likely that the information won't give them a strategic edge, and thus isn't worth their time. The big statistical advances always seem to come when the teams can realistically benefit from being the first to figure something out; that might not be the case here.

Michael Weinreb said...

Damn practicalities.

WarningTrack said...

I could also be wrong. But yeah, as a Heartless Capitalist I tend to think that when we don't know something that it *really* seems like we should have figured out by now, it's either not entirely quantifiable, or else not particularly useful.

If it's the latter, though, it's still just a matter of time until it becomes easier for some hobbyist to conduct the research anyway, for prestige instead of money (a fine line, given how many sabermetricians have been hired by MLB teams and all).

Paul W. said...

Dude, it's all about the marching band. ;)