Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Home Field Advantage

Now we turn to the next vaunted topic, "Home Field Advantage."

Admit it, you hear about it all the time, you probably talk about it all the time, and you probably think it is a very significant factor in the outcome of games.

But is it really? Does home field advantage really make a difference in the outcome of games? Oh sure, the talking heads go on and on about it, but does it really count?

Well that's a good question, and believe it or not, it's a very complex question. Some would like to paint that question in simple terms of "Team X has the loudest stadium, and it's much tougher to beat Team X in Team's X's home stadium." But, of course, things in life are rarely that simple, and the phenomenon of home field advantage is no different.

In fact, believe it or not, there is a lot of data, and I do mean a lot of data, that indicates that there really is, effectively speaking, no such thing as home field advantage. This forum will be one of the few places you hear that, but it is nevertheless true.

For example, if you break down the results in SEC games (48 SEC intra-conference games per year), there seems to be little legitimate correlation between the overall results and where the game was played. In most years, the home teams wins slightly more games than the road team (usually about one game more, a 25-23 overall record for the home team), but that's not always a given. It's pretty common for the road teams to actually have a better overall record in conference play than the home teams. In the end, it's very close one way or the other, with neither the home teams or the away teams having any real advantage, and honestly what very little difference that actually exists between the two being almost certainly statistical white noise.

Beyond that, we have further evidence.

Let's take a look at the last five years. If you had to say, which two SEC teams performed better at home, relative to their road performance, than the rest of the SEC? Surely, if a team does have a home field advantage, and if that advantage really makes a tangible impact on the outcome of games, then the teams with the biggest home field advantage would generally speaking have the best home performance relative to their road performance, right? Not quite. In fact -- get ready for a shocker -- the two SEC teams that have performed the best at home relative to their performance on the road have been -- again, get ready for a shock -- Ole Miss and Mississippi State. And correct me if I'm wrong, but you never hear anybody talking about how difficult it is to play in Vaught-Hemingway, or Davis Wade Stadium.

So what about some of the big boys of the SEC with those massive 90,000+ seat stadiums? Surely there is a big home field advantage there with those extremely loud crowds. Uh, well, not quite. Take LSU for example, and their vaunted Tiger Stadium. Believe it or not, despite all of the talk about supposedly how difficult it is to play in "Death Valley," in the five-year stretch from 2001-2005, LSU was 15-5 at home in conference play, and 15-5 on the road in conference play. At bottom, it was the same record, regardless of where they played. We'll go even deeper than that, looking at Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee in that same five-year stretch. Despite massive stadiums, it did them little good. In fact, all three teams had a significantly better record on the road than than they did at home. If anything, for that group, playing at home was at times seemingly a death knell more than anything else.

At bottom, as a whole, big-time programs have big-time winning records at their home stadiums, compared to their road records. And the reason is simple, when you take into account all games, you take into account all of the Sisters of the Poor that a team will play, and those patsies greatly inflate the overall home record (even we went 6-2 at home in 2006, for example). And obviously, since you don't play home-and-home series with the Sisters of the Poor, you never play them on the road to where you greatly inflate that record too, which causes the disparity between the overall home and away records. So, as expected, once you filter out all of the Sisters of the Poor, that inflated record goes away. At bottom, you generally win fewer games against better teams, and more games against poorer teams, regardless of where you play the game itself. For example, we all know the argument from the 2006 LSU season. They went 4-0 at home in SEC play, but 2-2 on the road, and the argument was that had those four road games been played in Tiger Stadium, they would have won them all. In reality though, that argument doesn't hold water. The disparities between the two records did not result from the location of the games, but the overall quality of the opponents faced. The four home games included three teams with losing records, and the overall record of those four teams was a measly 21-28 (42.8%). On the other hand, the four road games included the eventual national champion, a top ten team, a top fifteen team, and also a team that went 9-4 and finished in the top 25. All told, the overall record of those four teams was 43-11 (79.6% winning percentage). Had the schedule been reversed, it's very likely they would have went 2-2 at home and 4-0 on the road. Again, it wasn't the location of the games that made the difference, it was the disparity in the quality of opponents that mattered. The point of the matter is that when playing similar teams (such as conference games), teams tend to win more games against lesser opponents, and win fewer games against better opponents, regardless of whether the game is played at home or on the road.

Going even deeper than that, you often here that home field advantage really makes a difference in close games. So is that valid or not? In a word, no. Brian C. Fremeau, who publishes a college football rating system called the Fremeau Efficiency Index, did the research for a November 9th, 2006 column at Football Outsiders. In it, he compiled a list of every Division 1-A college football game that was decided by seven points or less, and he came to the conclusion that 172 games fell into that category in the 2006 regular season. Want to guess the home record and the road record? All told, in the 172 games, home teams went 86-86 (.500), and road teams went 86-86 (.500).

Fremeau later summed it up best: "Home-field advantage may be an emotional factor, but it does not appear to be a significant statistical one."

In fact, several coaches have indicated that they feel it to be advantageous to play on the road. That may sound odd at first because you hear so much about home field advantage, but there's a legitimate rationale behind it. Pat Dye, arguably, is that viewpoint's most prominent proponent, and he long stated his belief that playing on the road presented a more advantageous situation. According to Dye, teams are more focused on the road due to fewer off-field distractions (especially the day before the game and the day of the game), and also going into a hostile environment forces teams to band together as, well, a team, which though not quantifiable, is an important factor in winning football games.

Again, that probably sounds odd because you never hear it, but nonetheless it is a pretty solid rationale.

At the end of the day, the only real support for home field advantage seems to be what people say. In other words, support for the existence and legitimacy of home field advantage usually amounts to nothing more than unqualified verbal and written speculation from fans and / or questionably-qualified "experts" like the Lee Corsos of the world.

But why does everyone so badly want to believe in home field advantage? I say two main reasons.

For one, teams that lose games on the road suddenly have a convenient excuse for the loss. You hear it all of the time, as we mentioned earlier. Though it's a weak-at-best argument (it doesn't matter the least bit the speculative outcome of a game when played somewhere else, all that matters is the outcome of the game where it is played), fans cling to it passionately, even to the point of absurdity. Again with the 2006 LSU team, even most LSU fans continue to cling to the notion that they would have beaten Florida had the game been in Baton Rouge instead of Gainesville. Only one problem with that: the game wasn't even close. Florida took a 23-7 lead early in the third quarter, and from there sit on it. Only did a long LSU field goal four minutes into the fourth quarter bring the game within two touchdowns, and they never got closer. Truth is, even the people who think home field advantage has a massive impact on the outcome of games would have easily said it would never have made that much difference in a game like that. And keep in mind I'm not trying to pick on the LSU people here; if it is being read that way then that is incorrect. This type of rationale is common among all college football fans, unfortunately. At bottom, people will cling to the notion that "Oh yeah, well we would have won had it been at our stadium" (as if that doesn't sound like a middle school argument), even in the fact of sheer absurdity.

Two, you have to consider this: If home field advantage is legitimate and significant, a fan literally is part of a win. The fan literally plays a role in his team winning, and in that sense he's essentially like a player on the team; it produces the feeling that, hell, the common fan may as well have caught the game-winning touchdown pass. And of course, fans desperately want to believe that. They want to believe that their actions have a very tangible, very real, and very significant positive impact on their favorite team, even if there is no real evidence indicating anything of the sort. No one wants to believe that they pay ungodly amounts of money and yell and scream in support of their favorite team for it to have essentially no impact. Fans want to believe the former notion.

But wanting to believe something doesn't make that something true. Nor does everyone talking about it, even if it ESPN and the like doing the talking.

At bottom, despite vehement assertions that home field advantage is real and significant, there is simply little to no actual empirical evidence that there is any such thing as a home field advantage in college football, and what little "advantage" could possibly be rationally construed from the data seems to be so small that it is essentially insignificant in statistical terms. Just because something is constantly repeated does not make it true, and home field advantage in college football seems to be a good real-world example of that.

Again, Fremeau summed it up perfectly. Home field advantage may represent a significant emotional attachment to the fans, but in an empirical real world sense, it seemingly has simply has no real, legitimate, or significant impact on the outcome of college football games.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis. To clarify the answer to the original poster's question as to why fans cling to home field advantage belief, they're are a couple of reasons. They revolve around the fans instinctive realization that it does play a small, legitimate part in pro sports, where studies have shown about one win in 10 is attributed to hfa in pro football. In the indoor sports - basketball and hockey - it's slightly higher, in MLB, slightly lower (about 1 in 20). One researcher's work hinted toward the old chestnut that the increased noise level, especially in indoor sports, may increase the intimidation factor on refs. There's also some evidence that familiarity with a facility helps with strategy, especially again with the indoor sports. Here's a link with some statistics on this:
http://www.straightdope.com/columns/070622.html. Of course, the pro stats have more validity since they are not allowed to engage schedule padding like big time college football and basketball. Also, you have the Vegas example, where the home field advangtage is considered to be worth a certain amount of points - 3 in the NFL, perhaps more in college. And they'd be out of business out there if they didn't have some idea how the games work. Finally, let me give one observation on the road being better for some teams. Having lived 22 years near Lexington and heard the complaints that the Kentucky basketall team played flat and lost games it shouldn't have at home, I believe they did. I'm also one of those who believe (after listening to the whining for 22 years) that Kentucky bball fans expectations are ridiculously out of proportion. I have no doubt this filters down to the players, and (though I can't prove it) I believe they do play tight in Rupp with this monkey on their backs. Sorry Tide fans, but this has occassionally been said about your football program. Remember the death threats against Bill Curry? (To be fair, we had the same thing here, except they threatened Curry's wife up here).

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