As the pandemic raged over society last year, sports were not spared. What games were played last year were played almost exclusively without fans — but this seemed to have a minimal effect on the phenomenon of home advantage. Researchers found that both European professional and amateur teams had an important advantage over visiting teams when playing at their home field last year.
The home advantage is one of the most studied and best-documented phenomena in sports. It’s relevant in both team and individual sports and it has been linked by previous studies to many factors such as crowd support, referee biases, psychological effects of expectations, travel fatigue, familiarity, and tactical behavior.
Spectators are usually described as a very important element for a team, but studies on the influence of absolute spectator numbers, stadium occupancy, or noise levels have shown that spectators don’t directly take effect on the home advantage – with other elements playing a more significant role to the home advantage.
Now, the pandemic had provided an unprecedented chance to further investigate this as part of a live experiment, with matches taking place in the absence of spectators. German researchers used the opportunity to carry out a statistical comparison of more than 40,000 soccer matches before and during the pandemic in European football leagues.
“Across European leagues the ratio of home wins, draws and away wins over the last ten seasons with spectators was roughly 45:27:28, meaning the home team wins in 45 out of 100 games, and the away team only 28 out of 100 games,” Daniel Memmert, co-author of the study, told ZME Science. “The reasons often cited for this are the direct influence of supporters.”
The researchers found that the absence of spectators wasn’t statistically significant in terms of the home advantage. Without the home fans, referees no longer favor the home team and both host and guest teams play equally offensively. Yet, in spite of this, the study found a clear home team advantage that persists even in matches played without the presence of the fans.
Expressed in numbers, this means that in matches without spectators the ratio of home wins, draws and away wins changed overall only slightly to 43:25:32. The ratio of results changed most dramatically in the German Bundesliga (46:24:30 with spectators; 33:23:45 without spectators), with other leagues such as the English Premier League reporting no statistically significant effect.
However, the findings also suggested that the presence of fans could influence referee behavior. Visiting teams normally face more sanctions in terms of yellow and red cars but without spectators this referee bias has now disappeared. Home teams also experienced a decrease in their usual advantage in terms of number of shots and shots on target.
“If the home advantage exists for professionals in absence of spectators, then it must be true for amateur games too,” argued Memmert. The researchers looked also at 6,000 soccer games from the Kreisliga A in Germany and found that home-field advantage applies not only to professionals but also to recreational kickers, “even though they rarely, if ever, get to enjoy full stands and loud chanting fans.”
Similar findings were reported in a 2020 study by Reading University researchers on UK’s Premier League and Championship. The researchers analyzed over 6,000 soccer games and found that the proportion of home victories on games played in empty stadiums only dropped from 43.4% before the pandemic to 42% last year. The pandemic also helped for away teams receiving fewer yellow cards.
The study was published in the journal PLOS One.