- The prevailing wisdom is that North American spectator sports would have to be played without fans for the foreseeable future.
- The expectation is that games with spectators wouldn’t return until the 2020-2021 season and possibly not even then.
- For some teams, playing without fans would at least partially negate their home field advantage.
Here’s an interesting question that I’ve been thinking about but haven’t come up with any good answers yet. Since we’re operating under the assumption that in the near term most ‘spectator sports’ will have to be played without fans in attendance what impact will that have on home field/home court/home ice advantage? Obviously, there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ answer but at the same time you have to think that there would be an impact.
In Sunday’s Las Vegas Review Journal, an article on this topic raised the possibility that ‘fan free’ games could end up influencing the betting line. The LVRJ spoke to 10 bookmakers and the general consensus was that a) fan free sports would impact the betting line and b) the most significant impact would be on home advantage. Before we look at what does change without fans let’s consider what wouldn’t change in terms of home field advantage. Fan support is only part of the equation and even without fans the home team still has the advantage of not having to travel, being able to stay at home and generally are able to maintain a routine. Westgate sportsbook director John Murray made that precise point:
“Part of that is teams don’t have to travel and they can stay in their house versus a hotel.”
The ability to control and maintain a routine is extremely important for some teams in some sports. Remember the 2020 college football National Championship? Due to inclement weather, Clemson ended up practicing in their hotel’s ballroom. At the time, Dabo Swinney downplayed the significance of this break in routine. That’s just the way he is and he certainly wasn’t going to ‘show any weakness’ to LSU. That being said, we can agree that on balance a team would rather practice in an actual sports facility than in a hotel ballroom.
Another component of home field advantage tangentially related to the above point is that visiting teams sometimes have their circadian rhythm screwed up by having play in a different time zone. Even in the current era of pro sports it remains a significant issue. To this day, many handicappers look to play against West Coast NFL teams traveling to the East Coast to play an early start time game. A similar component of home advantage is altitude–with or without fans in the stands teams playing in Denver, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque, New Mexico (which is at a slightly higher elevation than even Denver) will still have to deal with the altitude.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FAN SUPPORT
You can’t have fan support without fans and the experience of playing without anyone in attendance is going to be strange for every athlete. For professional athletes, they’ve likely been playing in front of a crowd since they were teenagers. Even if you don’t think that ‘fan support’ is a serious motivating factor it’s tough to argue that playing in front of a 30,000 fans is a profoundly different experience than playing in front of a few hundred fans. Or zero fans, for that matter. Even visiting teams will miss the intensity without fans–I’d suggest that playing in front of a hostile crowd has a similar psychological impact as playing in front of a supportive crowd.
In the LVRJ article, two teams’ divergent home field ‘vibe’ came up. At one extreme, the Seattle Seahawks home field advantage at CenturyLink Field. By now, every NFL fan knows that the stadium was designed to make it feel like the fans are looming over the field. More significantly, the roof that protects the crowd from the Pacific Northwest’s (in)famously rainy weather also reverberates noise right back on the field. The Westgate’s John Murray suggests that NFL home field advantage is situational and clearly the Seattle’s benefit greatly from their noisy fanbase:
“The NFL (home field advantage) is roughly three points. But I always thought those numbers were a little bit lazy. Some teams have a big home-field advantage like the Saints and Seahawks. But other teams, like the Jaguars or Redskins, have no home-field advantage at all.”
At the other extreme, William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich cited the ‘home field disadvantage’ that the Los Angeles Chargers endured last season as a contrast to the passionate fanbases of the Seahawks and Broncos:
“The Chargers got minus points at home when they played the Steelers and Packers and 80 percent of the fans were for (the visitors). Every case will be different but (empty stadiums) will definitely penalize teams with super-strong home-field advantages like the Broncos and Seahawks.”
Westgate sportsbook VP Jay Kornegay suggested that playing without fans would lower the average NFL home field edge by 1.5 or 2 points:
“There’s still an advantage there, but we would have to probably minimize it a bit.”
IMO, 1.5 or 2 points sounds a bit high as an average reduction. For teams like Seattle and Denver this deduction definitely makes sense. It could end up being more pronounced in college football which has a much wider range of home field environments ranging from intimidating madhouses like Clemson’s ‘Death Valley’ to the indifferent fans of UTEP or South Alabama.
OTHER POTENTIAL IMPLICATIONS OF ‘FAN FREE’ SPORTS
Bodanovich brought up another good point–basketball without fans would likely diminish the ‘energy in the building’ which could impact the tempo of the game itself:
“When there’s energy in the building and they’re flying up and down the court, the natural pace is just a little quicker.”
“Everyone says it will favor the offense because they can hear all the plays called out and there will be less false starts. But it will favor the defense, too, especially on the road at places like New Orleans and Green Bay, if they aren’t worried about the crowd noise.”
Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito thinks that play without fans could minimize ‘momentum swings’ which in turn could hurt underdogs:
“The momentum swing, when a team makes a big run, is the biggest thing you can hear in all sports. It might hurt an underdog a little more looking to come back, from a momentum standpoint, without a crowd there and without the oohs and aahs.”
“I think it will have a monster impact, but a lot of my close friends think (it won’t). I don’t want to be a doomsday guy, but I think it hurts everything about it if there’s no customers in the stands.”
“It loses its luster, its buildup, everything. All of a sudden, Notre Dame-Michigan looks a lot different. It will be like watching an exhibition football game.”
A LOT TO UNPACK ABOUT THE BETTING IMPACT OF GAMES WITHOUT FANS
I’m far from being a ‘rah rah’ guy but I concur with Vaccaro and not just because he’s literally seen it all in the sports betting business. A number of athletes throughout sports have made similar comments. Most major sports leagues feel the same way even if they’re currently taking the ‘anything for public health’ party line. They’ve all accepted the fact that games will need to be fan-free in the short term but in the longterm they have no interest in playing without fans. Obviously, part of this is a function of revenue but there’s also a more fundamental component–the last thing that bigtime sports wants is for the fan experience of watching a game to change in such a way that it undercuts their business model.
There’s just a lot to unpack about fan free sports on a macro or micro level. One thing that I keep thinking about–how will the various sports deal with the miserable optics of an empty arena? There’s nothing than looks worse on TV than a game played before a sparse crowd. If games are played in front of *no* crowd it could be an even bigger issue. Do they drape off the seats? German soccer has floated the idea of playing with cardboard cutouts in the stands. Would this at least improve the optics on TV or would it look ridiculous like the phony fans on old electric football games?
The important thing to keep in mind about home field/court/ice advantage is that they’re unique not only to each sport but to each team in each sport. They can also be situational based on a team’s short term and long term performance, the significance of an individual game or rivalry and even injuries. Furthermore, there’s just so many unknown variables about the various sports returning to play and how everything will work out. This is an interesting topic and for bettors and oddsmakers an important one. As each sport comes back online we’ll look at the implications of fan free games in each.