Burning Down the House: On Home-Field Advantage

-Westley, what about the R.O.U.S’s?
-Rodents of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist. *Is immediately attacked by an R.O.U.S.*

Our second straight week starting an article with a movie quote? Inconceivable.

I feel the same way about home field advantage. The evidence is seemingly inescapable; it’s practically tackling me and biting me in the shoulder. My college roommate, who’s one of the most competent people I know, did a study of the phenomenon in Major League Baseball and he says it most definitely exists. In MLB, the team with the best and the worst records both did better at home than they did on the road. (The World Series champions, interesting enough, had the same record home and away.). In MLS, the same is true; the Vancouver Whitecaps won all six of their games at home and not a single one on the road, while the Los Angeles Galaxy went unbeaten at home. That feat was matched last year in England by the champions, while the last place team also picked up seven more points at home than on the road.

I still don’t know whether I buy it.

My issue is less with the existence of such a thing as home field advantage and more with the assumption that it always exists, that there is a generic advantage present to the home team independent of all the tiny little factors that might otherwise exist. With the guess that all home-field advantages are created equal.

The Britannia, where the nights are always cold and usually wet.

This is important for us to figure out, because generally speaking, no sport is more impacted by the notion of home field advantage than soccer – you would never see the Los Angeles Lakers playing for a draw away to Minnesota. There are two reasons for this; one, the score remains so close throughout that even the slightest advantage can tilt the balance of the game. Two, unlike other sports, there are three possible outcomes of a soccer match: a good one, a less good one, and a bad one. The perception that they might be at a disadvantage on the road gives soccer managers an excuse to accept the less good one. And so they aim for it, thinking it an acceptable result away in Europe or on a cold wet night at the Britannia.

Is home-field advantage 10- to 100-thousand loud, screaming fans, and if so is their greater home-field advantage to be had with 100K than with 10K? Manchester United went undefeated at home last season with an average of 75,000 fans at their games, the highest raw number in the league, but Bolton won 10 of their games at home (and drew 5), better than all but the top four, Liverpool and Stoke, despite only averaging 22,000, third lowest and roughly 80 percent capacity of the Reebok. Is there more advantage to be had if they’re singing than if they’re screaming, or vice versa, or is it just a noise level thing, one that could be attained by building your stadium next to a major international airport? I recognize that I’m not an international footballer, but every highly intense competitive activity I’ve ever been a part of has been marked by a complete shutdown of all outside input. I get so focused I literally notice nothing, and remember nothing but the game, from the event itself. Considering they operate in those conditions twice a week, I imagine they get used to it.

Is it the field itself, which any Football Manager ™ can tell you can be made wider or narrower by your groundskeeper at the beginning of the season to suit a particular style of play? That’s easier to believe in baseball, where teams can be built to take advantage of the wild variations in a particular park’s characteristics than in soccer, where the changes are at best a few meters and the length of grass, which can have an impact on Barcelona, sure, but I feel few other teams would be quite as bothered.

Is it based in comforts, in the fact that sleeping in one’s own bed and drinking coffee from one’s own mug and peeing in one’s own toilet and setting off fireworks in one’s own bathroom better prepares one for the rigors of athletic competition than doing all that in the (probably very nice) hotel’s facilities. This could explain why derbies stay competitive, as presumably the visitors get to stay at home or their respective home base before traveling.

The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round.

Is it a matter of travel, of airplane food and legroom? Travel has become less of a hassle than it was 70 or 80 years ago; it’s not hard to image how a ten-hour train ride to Chicago to play the Cubs might diminish a team’s performance. Today, the best modern example of a team being forced to travel some distance in less than its usual luxury – Barcelona’s ten-hour bus ride to Milan after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption grounded their flight – ended in a catastrophic 3-1 result for the wandering band of travelers. But that’s hardly typical of top flight travel arrangements these days.

Or is it the one that every one seems to acknowledge and play up whenever it’s applicable, but that few teams face access to: elevation. Ask the U.S. teams about playing in Estadio Azteca at 7,500 feet (never mind the beer, batteries, and bags of urine that get thrown, which, yes, would also seem to add a certain level of home-field advantage to a match).  Ask the South American squads who wheeze their way through an ass-kicking against Bolivia at 11,000 feet in La Paz. They’d probably agree that helps the home squad.

All these factors may come in to play, but rarely all of them at the same time. My theory is that home-field advantage has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; that the biggest contributing factor to it is the belief by one or both sides that the home one does in fact have an advantage. I’d argue that the real, tangible reasons for it have diminished over time. Travel is less of an inconvenience, facilities have improved, and stadiums have become more uniform.

We’ve seen yet again this year that home-field advantage isn’t that great of a reward in the MLS playoffs. Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas both won nine of 17 total games at home, only to fall there in the playoffs. For the fourth year running, a visiting team has won in the conference finals in an environment where there is no less good outcome. Teams have to win, and so they play for the win and often they do win.

The only reason a cold wet night in Stoke is any different from a cold wet night anywhere else is because we allow it to be.

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