DATA DEPENDENT: Has COVID-19 killed home-field advantage in sports?

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Sports leagues around the world are awakening from COVID-19 induced hibernation. In order to keep in line with public health recommendations, European soccer teams have had to make a number of adjustments. Some are superficial and don’t really affect the game itself. Players wearing masks until they arrive at the pitch and teams making staggered entrances won’t influence the game’s outcome. Keeping fans away is a different story.

At first glance, playing in empty stadiums because a packed house would be impossible to social distance looks harmless enough. However, as anyone familiar with sports knows, home-field advantage is a real thing. It even comes through scientifically. Experiments have shown that prior to the start of games, teams playing at home consistently produce more testosterone than their opponents.

More in the way of intangibles, the home crowd can sway the outcome of matches even before play begins. Just look at Barcelona’s abject and timid performance at Anfield in last year’s Champions League semifinal. The louder the Kopites grew, the faster the wheels fell off for Lionel Messi’s men.

So how has the new normal affected home team performance?

Using an extremely limited data set, we’ve tallied the results from the German Bundesliga, Spanish Primera Division, and English Premier League with June 11 as a start date and not including June 24th matches. A total of 87 games were played. Results were fairly even. The home side won in 33 matches. The two teams drew in 26 matches. The away-side won in 28 matches.

The fact that home teams still managed more wins than losses is deceptively positive. For the most part, they are expected to win, especially when a top team faces off against a bottom dweller. Home field advantage cannot make up for lack of quality. However, when eliminating matches between teams separated by more than 10 points on the table, a very different picture emerges. The vast majority of results were draws for the home team. This is significant because under normal circumstances, an away draw is a very acceptable result and normally considered as the home-side dropping points.

If you add those results to away-wins, the scale tilts to 33 and 54. In that sense, COVID-19 adjustments have taken away home field advantage so far. It will be interesting to see whether this pattern holds as the sample size grows.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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