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Is there really home advantage if there's no fans?

With the League of Ireland returning with significantly reduced fan capacity and the Premier League finishing with zero fans present it poses the question: is there really home advantage if there are no fans? After all fan support can influence the flow of the game and help motivate players. A serious example of this is: or (if you’re curious). Home advantage is a crucial factor in determining success, home advantage exists at a rate of 68.3% in football and 67% for both basketball and handball.

Curva Sud during a Milan derby.

But home advantage isn’t just the influence of the fans, it is much more than that and it can determine the result of the game. At the very basic level home advantage is the advantage home teams receive, that teams win more at home than they do away. It exists amongst professional and amateur teams and doesn’t differ across genders, it is also not restricted to club games and extends to international games too. There are numerous factors which contribute to this advantage, these include and not restricted to: familiarity, crowd, rules and the psychological and physical states of competitors, coaches and referees. But winning at home isn’t a guarantee, it is merely an advantage. It has been found that in the Premier League 14% of teams will have a negative home advantage.

Home advantage exists in part due to familiarity and learning. Familiarity refers to the fact that players will be familiar and accustomed to playing on their home pitch/court. They will be more comfortable playing at home as they’ve played there significantly more than any other venue, they will know where the dressing room is, where they need to park, how to get into the venue etc. Basketball players will know the exact point on their court where there is a dead spot and to avoid it. Football teams that play on different surfaces, including artificial grass, and on bigger or smaller pitches all contribute to this sense of familiarity. This sense of familiarity is an element that the opposition will, for the most part, not have, it can contribute to a pre-match sense of “comfort,” which can combat performance anxiety or a feeling of uncertainty. This can be the difference between a drop of a ball or a win and a loss.

Travel is a significant contributor, travelling on a crammed bus is incredibly fatiguing particularly so when the journey is 4+ hours which is common for numerous teams in Basketball Ireland’s National and Super Leagues. Even if teams travel the day before, they are still in an unfamiliar environment and the home team still has the underrated advantage of sleeping in their own bed. We can see the detrimental effect of travel if we examine the qualified teams for the 1998 World Cup which took place in France. Taking place in France and being won by France demonstrates very little and is pure anecdotal evidence as the subsequent World Cup was played in South Korea and won by Brazil. But research examining this World Cup demonstrated that the distance travelled by qualified teams was significantly correlated to goals scored against them or goals scored. So the greater distance travelled by teams meant that they had more goals scored on them and they scored less goals themselves.

All of these elements contribute to the physical and psychological state that home teams will experience that will give them this home advantage. The familiarity of playing at home will contribute to the sense of confidence that the opposition will not have, this is the psychological state that athletes and coaches have which will contribute to home advantage. We know that athletes experience a higher sense of self-efficacy, confidence and motivation and lower experiences of anxiousness and fatigue when playing at home compared to playing away. When playing at home there is also a sense of territoriality, that the team want to protect their home and don’t want to be beaten on their home pitch, this is particularly evident in areas with a history of violent conflict and foreign occupation.

We focus on the fans influence or effect on the players, but what about the role of officials in home advantage? Officials are required to make rapid and accurate calls which could potentially alter the flow of the game. There also exists a referee bias, referees have so much information to compute that one study suggested that referees gauge the reaction of the crowd to determine the severity of a foul. Naturally the bias exists in favour of the home team, wherein officials are subconsciously influenced by the crowd and react more favourably to the home team. In English and Scottish football, officials make more calls in favour of the home team in terms of penalties and sending’s off. A study has shown that the noise of the crowd influenced the referees in decisions to suit the home team. When officiating a game with crowd noise or silence, significantly fewer fouls were called on the home team. There was no increase in the amount of fouls called against the away team however.

There are numerous dimensions involved in the home advantage phenomena, all of which interact together. The advantage to playing at home will still exist, even without the presence of fans. Although there will be fewer or no fans at all at upcoming football matches the advantage will be as a result of familiarity, travelling and the physical and psychological state of players and coaches among other contributing factors. The crowd plays a role in subconsciously influencing officials, but without the presence of fans we are less certain of the role the officials will play in home advantage. Will the referee be more susceptible to the fewer, albeit clearer, shouts and abuse from the remaining fans or are they only influenced by the masses? Only time will tell.

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