Sam Ross Jr.

Sam Ross Jr.

The absence of fans in the seats as pro sports have resumed play prompts some thoughts about the basic tenet among fandom – that spectators not only are a critical part of the game, but they also have influence on the outcome.

Fans are supposed to be a particularly important component of the advantage of being at home.

Absent in recent weeks, along with the fans and in cases of the NHL and NBA home games themselves, have been the player testimonials to the people in the seats for inspiring them to greater heights of performance.

These postgame paeans to the home fans once were as customary as mentions of teammates or, in the case of race drivers, all their sponsors. Now there are none.

Just the other night, the announcers on an NHL game were noting swings in momentum within the game, something often credited under more normal circumstances at least in part due to the effect of the fans. The announcers seemed a bit incredulous that such was happening in a sterile, fan-free arena.

Even though stadiums and arenas are piping in crowd noise, it’s not the same as having honest-to-goodness partisans in full-throated roar – often fueled by alcohol.

I never fully accepted the undeniable belief in decided home advantage. But it seemed it would be greatest in football, with the ability of fans to affect necessary communication, and in baseball, where being home and thereby batting last provided tactical and strategic edges.

And so it was with a bit of surprise that I found a 2014 study from the Encyclopedia of Sport and Exercise Psychology that looked at home winning percentages across a five-year span.

That study found the NBA had the greatest advantage, with the home team winning 61% of the time.

The home NFL teams won 58.2% of the time and MLB home teams were a distant third at 53.6% success for the home clubs. 

The study didn’t look at hockey, perhaps a reflection of that sport’s fourth-place standing among pro sports in this country.

Upon further examination, a July 1 story on SI.com referred to research that found when fans were eliminated from Swedish soccer games, the home-field advantage was not discernible.

And that would seem to indicate that the greatest effect of a vocal home crowd is not necessarily on the players, but on the people calling the games.

Be it subconscious confirmation bias, with the officials tending to see things the way the fans do as judged by their roar, or conscious leaning toward the home team due to intimidation, it seems fans can influence the people making the calls.

With no fans, the officials, umpires and referees in these resumed seasons should be at peak neutral efficiency.

Among the vagaries of the NHL bubble setup is that Edmonton literally has been playing on its home ice, although the Oilers have had to take turns being the visiting team in their home arena.

That’s because a noteworthy hockey home-ice advantage is not based on loud fans, but rather on having the ability to make the last line change during stoppages.

A betting expert quoted in a New York Post article earlier this week listed the advantage of last change between evenly matched teams at about 1.5%.

There are other kinds of home advantages that have nothing to do with fans.

Steelers Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis suffered from asthma and dreaded early season away games in hot, humid locales. He recalled in a WedMD interview “I almost died” during the 1997 season in Jacksonville, a Steelers loss.

Warm weather teams coming to cold locales to play late in the football season commonly have problems.

Baseball teams can have similar climate shock. For pitchers accustomed to warmer weather, trying to get a feel for the ball on cold nights can be a game changer.

And then there are geographic home influences such as Denver and its mile-high altitude, or the time zone challenges faced by West Coast teams coming to the east, or East Coast teams going west.

These problems have been eliminated by the bubble setups of the NHL and NBA. As for baseball, its travel has been pared down significantly, too.

At some future date, we may again be blessed with fans being allowed to take their seats. But this ongoing experience without fans suggests their role may have been overstated in the past.

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