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.