Is Home Field Advantage Real?

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As the World Series heads to Game Six tonight, the Red Sox are up three games to two. Boston lost once at home in Fenway Park, and the St. Louis Cardinals got beat twice at their own Busch Stadium. They’ve each won only one game at home. Both teams are missing out on that certain something, that edge that seems to come from playing in your own stadium in front of the hometown fans. Is that home field advantage real?

The science points to yes. Plenty of researchers have crunched the numbers on various sports and found that the home team consistently wins a greater proportion of games. In a review of bunch of these types of studies in 2010, Jeremy P. Jamieson, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, concluded that a home team will win approximately 60 percent of all games.

What contributes to this advantage? Researchers have found a number of things that give an edge to the home team, some more obvious than others. Jamieson arranges them into a few categories.

The hometown crowd

Larger and denser crowds, which the home team would expect to have with their fans living nearby, are associated with bigger advantages for the home team. The crowd’s behavior also has an effect, and studies have found that when the fans boo the home team for poor plays, it acts as a motivator for better performance—more so than when a visiting team is booed. Other research suggests that noise from the crowd can influence the judgments of referees and umpires, and fewer calls are made against the home team when the officials can hear the crowd than when the fans are quiet.

The familiar field

Another factor is the players’ familiarity with their stadium’s facilities and the playing surface. One study found that teams that relocate to a new stadium enjoy a reduced home field advantage for a while. Even if it’s their stadium, the unfamiliarity takes away from their edge over away teams until they get settled in to the new home. 

Business travel

The third factor Jamieson found was travel. Away teams sometimes have to travel a long way to their competitors’ home stadium, and studies have linked the away team’s travel distance to the level of advantage that the home team has over the visitors. One of the main drivers behind this effect was the jet lag from long-distance east-west travel affecting visiting teams’ performance and game outcomes.

Positive thinking

Finally, these three factors all feed into a fourth: the psychological states of the players. Athletes report feeling more positive and motivated when playing at home, which can affect their performance.

In his review of the research, Jamieson found that baseball teams generally have a weaker home field advantage than teams and competitors in other sports. Jamieson thinks that the one underlying cause here is season length and game importance. Major League Baseball teams play 162 game in a regular season, so each individual game contributes less to their final win percentage. If the players see an individual game as less important to the overall season, it might reduce a home team’s motivation.

The crowd factor also seems to come into play here. In 2007, Jamieson writes, the average MLB stadium had a capacity of 45,097 and average attendance for the season was 32,717. So, for an average regular season game, about three quarters of the seats are filled. The English Premiere football league (soccer, to us Yanks), in comparison, filled a little more than 80 percent of the seats on average that same year, and showed a much larger home field advantage effect. A lower crowd density might help explain why baseball shows less of a home field advantage effect than more well-attended sports.

That said, NFL football has a shorter season than MLB baseball and denser crowds (around 98 percent of the seats were filled, on average, in 2007), but Jamieson found those teams had a similar home field advantage to MLB, so something else has to be going on here to account for the differences between sports. Jamieson suggests that fan behavior could contribute. While soccer and football fans are known to be active and rowdy, baseball, he says, has a “less intense atmosphere in which fans routinely leave even before the game is over.”