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The science of home-field advantage

February 18th, 2010

In celebration of a couple of Canadian gold medals in Vancouver, this week’s Jockology looks at the science behind home-field advantage:

The biggest edge gold medalists Maëlle Ricker and Alexandre Bilodeau had over their Olympic opponents may have been from their brain chemistry rather than the roar of Canadian spectators at Cypress Mountain.

A series of studies over the past decade has debunked the long-held theory that home advantage stems primarily from external factors such as an enthusiastic crowd, a familiar venue, travel-weary opponents and officials whose calls are swayed by the crowd. While these factors can play a role, a more basic biological imperative may be at work, as athletes display an evolutionarily driven desire to protect their territory. [read on...]

There are a bunch of interesting studies on the topic, which dissect the role of crowds, stadiums, refs and so on. There’s a sidebar to the piece that doesn’t appear in the online version (not sure if it’s in the paper version), so I’ll reproduce it here:

Can fans influence the game?
A new study shows that sports teams have a “home advantage” even if there’s no one in the stands. But that doesn’t mean crowds don’t have an impact. A 2002 study in the journal Psychology of Sport & Exercise asked qualified soccer referees to make calls on games they watched on video, with the sound either turned on or off. The refs who could hear crowd noise called 15 per cent fewer fouls against the home team than those watching in silence.

  1. selam
    February 18th, 2010 at 23:25 | #1

    I generally have a distrust for stats (it seems you can use them to take things out, using various methods that should be left in)… but for soccer specifically how can you “control” for quality of the team. Especially since the most significant factor, goals is statistically very low.

    All these studies are clearly correlative. Isn’t is just as likely that the association of cheering from the crowd (positive feedback) stimulates testosterone release? (rather than some kind of “protective” instinct)

    Have any real controlled studies been done?

  2. alex
    February 19th, 2010 at 00:23 | #2

    There are good stats and bad stats. In this case, I think the studies are pretty good. You can read the whole study relating to the Italian soccer games here. For the crowd-less games, they try to control for team quality by comparing the results to games against another team with a similar record. If you have enough pairs of games, you can wash out the effect of team quality.

    The second part of the Italian soccer study, which I didn’t mention in the article, looks at teams that share the same home stadium: AC Milan versus Internazionale and AS Roma versus Lazio Roma. In this case, the crowd favours one team (because the “home” team gets its season ticket holders and a larger section of the other tickets), but both teams have the same level of familiarity with the stadium. In this case, no home advantage existed, which supports van de Ven’s hypothesis that it’s familiarity with the stadium rather than crowd support that makes the difference.

    As for the testosterone studies, they measured levels before and after games, so before they even heard the roar of the crowd. This area is still very preliminary though — basically just two studies (soccer and hockey) show it. And there are a lot of other factors that affect testosterone levels. The Brock researchers found that watching a video of a previous victory raises testosterone levels, for example. So all sorts of things such as state of mind, season standings, who the opponent is and so on can affect testosterone levels — but it does appear that playing at home, rather than away, is one of those factors.

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