Home Field Advantage: Fact or Fiction?
Home field advantage is a phrase that is almost synonymous with a championship in any sport. Be it a series of games, like in baseball or basketball, or a best-of-one match like we see in football, everyone wants to be the home team. But why is playing your game in front of a stadium of fans from your city so important? And does it really give your team an advantage?
There are two categories when it comes to home-field advantage; physical and psychological advantages. Let’s start with the physical advantages a home team might have over their traveled opponent. A perfect example of this is the Denver Broncos’ home, the Mile High Stadium. Built exactly one mile above sea level, visiting players are usually benched with oxygen masks to help them cope with the thinner air. Broncos players, who practice and play regularly in this condition, are much less affected and have the advantage. Baseball stadiums demonstrate even more irregularities; the only requirements for a field is that the infield is 90 feet going to each base and that the minimum distance to the shortest wall is 325 feet (and clubs stopped following that rule after 1958). After that, teams are free to do as they please with their fields. Everyone knows the Green Monster in Fenway Park changes how a left fielder plays, or that pitchers are in trouble at Yankee Stadium, home to some of the shortest distances for a home run (318 to left, 408 is the furthest in center, and 314 to right). You can see all of the different stadium dimensions compared to each other here. Players and coaches must adjust to the different stadium designs, and the home team- who plays there most often- would be most prepared. So it would seem that there is a physical advantage to playing on home turf.
But as the great Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of the game is half mental”, so what effects do being home or away have on a team psychologically? One obvious advantage is that the home team is exactly that; at home. They don’t have to travel or stay in a hotel, they know their surroundings better, but most importantly they have the support of the fans. The effects of a stadium are only as strong as the fans are passionate, and this applies to pretty much every sport out there. A loud crowd can throw off even the most experienced athlete. One of the most famous examples of this actually comes from college basketball in 2015. Michigan State’s student crowd fooled their opponents- Maryland Eastern Shore- not once, not twice, not three, but five times, forcing rushed shots. The Seattle Seahawks have their dreaded “12th Man” on defense, the crowd. It gets so loud that opposing quarterbacks can’t communicate plays with their offense, which can force either a false start, delay of game, or a premature timeout to regroup. Of course, a loud crowd can have the opposite effect on the home team if things go poorly. Booing and jeering are not uncommon in the sports world- and fans have been known to turn on their team if they’re playing poorly enough.
So it seems that home-field advantage is a real thing, not a sport’s myth to sell more tickets to a home crowd or a trick to get in the heads of visiting teams. The hard numbers back this up too: in 2018 the home team won 52% of MLB games, and in the NBA 58% of victories came at home. So if you really want your club to grab the win, then get out to the stadium and root, root, root for the home team.