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What Happened to NFL Home-Field Advantage?

Home teams were 127-128-1 overall this season, finishing below .500 for the first time in NFL history. Playing in nearly empty stadiums is one explanation, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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“Green 18! Green 18! Blue 58! Hut!”

It was Week 3 in New Orleans. The Packers were playing the Saints on the road. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense were facing a third-and-3 from the Saints’ 15-yard line, up 30-27 with 3:49 left in the fourth quarter. Rodgers’s cadence thundered through the Superdome—there were 748 fans in attendance, about 1 percent of the stadium’s capacity. Saints linebacker Demario Davis sprung through the gap between left tackle David Bakhtiari and a receiver bunch, but he moved too soon, falling for Rodgers’s hard count by jumping offside. Rodgers took advantage of the free play by targeting receiver Allen Lazard, who drew a pass-interference penalty in the end zone. Green Bay got the ball at the 1-yard line and scored three plays later to seal the victory.

“It’s a new world we’re living in, playing in,” Rodgers said after the game.

That new world was one in which few fans were present in NFL stadiums, if any at all, due to COVID-19 safety protocols. In a normal year, Davis would not have been able to hear Rodgers’s hard count over nearly 75,000 screaming Saints fans, and he might have stayed put, potentially helping the New Orleans defense get a stop and giving Drew Brees and the offense a chance to take the lead. It has not, however, been a normal year, and the ability of savvy quarterbacks to manipulate defenses is one byproduct of 2020’s hushed stadiums. It might also be a contributing factor to a larger season-long trend: For the first time in NFL history, home teams finished below .500 this season, going 127-128-1 overall. It’s unclear how much COVID-19 contributed to the diminished success of home teams—there’s more that goes into home-field advantage than crowd noise alone—but the evidence is clear.

The Chiefs’ two losses this season were in Kansas City. The season’s biggest upset, Jets over Rams, happened in Los Angeles; the Rams were probably grateful they didn’t have home fans in attendance to witness it.

Home teams have outscored away teams by just 14 total points this season—0.05 points per game—which is the second-lowest scoring margin on record.

By total yardage, away teams outgained home teams by 7.7 yards per game—the most since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and just the second time since then that home teams have been outgained.

In 2020, a team that packed up and flew to a new city, stayed in a hotel, and played in a visiting stadium on Sunday was more likely to win than one whose players stayed at home and played in a familiar environment, a trend that flips a common sports assumption on its head.

The most obvious explanation for the decline in home-field advantage this season is the lack of large crowds due to COVID-19 protocols. There are no hordes of screaming Steelers fans waving terrible towels, 12s setting sound records in Seattle, or Kansas City fans shaking the foundation of Arrowhead Stadium on pivotal defensive third downs. It wasn’t until Week 14 that a home quarterback—in this case, Browns signal-caller Baker Mayfield—had to gesture to quiet a home crowd that was too riled up as he tried to operate at the line of scrimmage. (As it happens, the Browns went on to lose that home game against Baltimore.)

After the Steelers lost their first game of the season in Week 13 at home to the Washington Football Team, guard David DeCastro acknowledged the impact of an empty Heinz Field.

“The no-fans thing sucks,” DeCastro said. “It felt dead out there a little bit, you know, playing on a Wednesday night with no fans. At the beginning of the season, I think when there were no fans, it was an all-new atmosphere. ‘We can get through this.’ You still had that rush to the early season. And now, you’re in December with no fans. You’re like, ‘What are we doing out here?’ I don’t like to make excuses because we’re professionals and stuff, but we’re still humans. We have emotions and not having the fans there is just—it’s tough.”

The NFL is pumping artificial crowd noise into stadiums to create some kind of atmosphere, but that noise is nowhere near as loud as a stadium filled with fans—one audio engineer told me earlier this year that the noise in a typical NFL stadium can hit the same decibel level as that of a jet engine during takeoff.

Gamblers and oddsmakers have taken note of this year’s home-away splits, too. Dave Mason, sportsbook brand manager for BetOnline, termed it a “home-field lack-of-advantage.” At the beginning of the season, he said, oddsmakers valued home-field advantage at about two points. As they got through September, though, they found themselves taking significant losses as road teams were winning and covering spreads at higher rates than they’d anticipated. Since October, oddsmakers have adjusted to value home-field advantage less and less. Now, according to Mason, it’s worth about half a point to a point.

“It was a tricky start,” Mason said. “We didn’t move as much as we should have, and some sharp players took advantage of that. But the market corrected itself like it always did.”

The market correction was evident by December when the 49ers were prohibited from playing at Levi’s Stadium due to stricter COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County. They played their remaining “home” games in Glendale, Arizona, at the Cardinals home stadium, but the move had no impact on the spread for their first home-away-from-home game against the Bills. Mason said that BetOnline had to cancel all wagers that had already been placed on the game by rule but made no adjustment when it reopened the line.

“Last year, it would have been, ‘Holy hell!’ This year it’s like, ‘Oh, whatever,’” Mason said. “Another week in the NFL, another week in sports.”

Overall, Vegas favored home teams by an average of 1.06 points per game this year, the lowest total on record by a significant margin.

Mason assumes that home-field advantage will mostly rebound next season, as long as stadiums are allowed to return to normal capacity, but there is a catch: It’s not entirely clear how much empty stadiums explain the diminishing benefit of playing at home. In fact, there’s evidence that the trend predated COVID-19. This season has produced the second-lowest scoring margin between home and road teams, but the lowest was in 2019. Last season, away teams actually outscored home teams by .14 points per game. Home teams still finished with the better record—132-123-1 overall.

The limited crowds in 2020 offer a natural explanation for the decline, but ease of travel, technology that enables teams to game plan and watch film on the road, and newer stadiums with more uniform playing fields (and fewer quirks) are other potential factors. Perhaps restricted crowd sizes accelerated a trend that was already in motion. Whatever the reason, it’s worth wondering what effect a home crowd has on a team’s performance. The most natural assumption is that a big crowd provides an emotional boost for the home team. Early this season, players and coaches talked about a lack of “juice” on the sidelines and the challenge of psyching themselves up for big moments when the environment felt flat.

It’s not quite as simple as players wanting to hear themselves cheered on by fans, though. Plenty of players say that they like playing on the road with the opportunity to silence opposing fans with a win. Earlier this season, Raiders punter A.J. Cole told me that the strangest part of playing without fans is the silence when the away team is doing well.

“When we’re doing well and we’re winning I don’t think the atmosphere has been all that different, because they play some music and everybody’s been hyped up on our sidelines,” Cole said. “The weird thing is, when the other team makes a big play it’s just silence. You can’t really hear them on their sideline and, obviously, after the other team makes a big play at home they’re not going to play ‘Turn Down for What.’”

It’s possible that crowds have more of an impact on referees than they do on the players themselves. An August study from the Institute of Labor Economics, a German research group, examined European soccer games played in empty stadiums during the pandemic and found a slight decrease in the overall win share of home teams. More significantly, researchers found a decrease in the amount of yellow cards awarded to players on visiting teams. They surmised that the absence of environmental pressure on referees—namely, from screaming fans—can benefit the away team.

There’s anecdotal evidence in football that this is true. In 1999, the NFL instituted instant replay and coaches’ challenges, putting a check on the referee’s influence. The following season, home winning percentage dropped from 59.7 percent to 55.6. Overall, home teams in the NFL tend to have a favorable penalty yard margin—over the 10 seasons prior to 2020, away teams were penalized for an average of 3.2 more yards per game than home teams. In 2020, away teams were penalized for an average of 3 yards per game more than home teams, suggesting little, if any, change in officiating due to lack of crowds.

Mason, the oddsmaker, said that while home-field advantage has been on a slight decline in recent years, he thinks the 2019 numbers are probably a statistical blip stemming from a small sample size, and that the edge for home teams will rebound when there are full stadiums. There are probably factors beyond just the crowd at play, but when the terrible towels return to Pittsburgh and the 12s are back in Seattle, more wins may return too.

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