“Home Field Advantage” at London Olympics

Why is the UK doing so well in London? Is it due to the traditional sporting rivalry with France and Australia, or to Britain’s increasingly diverse population? Or is it simply the factor known as “home field advantage”? Berkshire Publishing is known for its massive, groundbreaking sports publications and I’m thrilled to have the 2012 Olympic Games, staged in one of my own hometowns, to inspire us and our global network of sports experts as we create a new and much-expanded edition and online resource. Here’s an article from the 2005 Berkshire Encyclopedia of World Sport as a sample – we’ll definitely be adding something about London! (There’s an ebook version, too, available on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo: Encyclopedia of World Sport: e-book edition with foreword by Lord Sebastian Coe, chair of the London Olympics.)

Berkshire Encyclopedia of World SportHome Field Advantage

In sports such as basketball, the home team is victorious in over half the contests. In individual sports, for example, golf, athletes perform slightly better on their home “turf.” International competitors show a similar preference for familiar territory: Olympic athletes and World Cup soccer players perform better than expected in front of the home crowd. All these phenomena are grouped under the heading of “The Home Field Advantage,” or more generally “The Home Advantage.”

While the home advantage has been studied for over twenty-five years, the reasons for it remain elusive. A full range of explanations has been offered and each receives some empirical support. As a consequence, the home advantage turns out to be a rich arena for developing the social science of sport.

The Magnitude of the Home Advantage

A range of values for the home advantage has been reported. For professional sports the home team wins between 61 percent and 76 percent of the contests in soccer, with lesser levels for hockey (56 percent–64 percent), basketball (64 percent–65 percent), and football (54 percent–63 percent). Professional baseball shows the lowest levels of home advantage (53 percent–59 percent, though this can rise to 75 percent for “special” games like opening day). At the collegiate level, research finds home advantages in men’s basketball (58 percent–78 percent), football (59 percent–60 percent), field hockey (56.5 percent), and softball (56 percent), and women’s basketball (57 percent). Scholastic teams in cross-country (54 percent), wrestling (54 percent), basketball (51 percent–62 percent), and football (52 percent–58 percent) also are more likely to win at home, as are athletes playing club cricket (53 percent–57 percent). There is no consistent explanation for why the size of the home advantage varies by sport.

It is difficult to determine levels of the home advantage because the quality of the teams matters: Good teams playing weaker ones are unlikely to need the edge of the home crowd (or the boost the crowd provides the weaker home team is unlikely to result in a victory), and it is difficult to attribute a win solely to the factors thought to produce the home advantage. Research to date suggests that the home advantage may be most consequential when teams are equally matched or when the home team is slightly weaker than the visiting team.

Some studies cast the level of advantage in terms of an increased probability that the home team wins. Such studies find that, beyond variables influencing game outcomes, being the home team has a very small positive effect on the chance that the home team will win. Alternatively, a home advantage is defined by how an athlete (or team) performs relative to some baseline expectation, such as a world ranking, golf strokes in earlier rounds, or goals scored at away games. Here too the size of the home advantage is found to be small, but in the correct direction: Home teams or athletes in individual sports perform better than they otherwise might, even if they don’t win the event.

Sociological Explanations

Many explanations start with the presumed influence of the crowd. The crowd provides social support for athletes and spurs them on to better performance. Research suggests that crowd effects are greater for team sports than individual sports and at indoor venues compared with outdoor arenas. Crowd noise can increase the home advantage by interrupting opponent’s on-field communications, influencing the perceptions and decisions of referees, altering game strategies, and enhancing the home team’s performance via the greater support of a loud, partisan crowd.

Social solidarity and the rituals surrounding sports are also linked to the home advantage. Athletes can be representatives of the local community, creating a bond between team and fans: The home advantage is greater when teams and athletes are seen as representing collectives like colleges, cities, or nations. Rituals and ceremonies (e.g., opening day or senior night) can also boost the play of home athletes. The sociological bases for the home advantage are summed up in the oft-cited influence of local tradition, identification, and pride.

Social Psychological Factors

A home advantage arises in part from the subjective decisions made by officials. Studies find that referees in college and professional basketball, professional soccer, and hockey may be more likely to make calls favorable to a home team. Judges in sports like figure skating and ski jumping may show a bias toward athletes performing in front of a home audience.

Some decisions do appear to be influenced by the crowd. When spectators engage in behaviors like booing, officials may call more fouls against the visiting team. The visiting team may also engage in more aggressive behavior that leads officials to call violations. The simple presence of crowd noise may make observers more likely to award fouls to the visitors.

Psychological Explanations

A mixture of psychological processes and states contributes to the home advantage. Athletes think they play better in front of a home crowd, suggesting that a greater confidence, motivation, or self-efficacy is present. The arousal of the home athlete may positively raise performance, while visiting teams may be overly aggressive and thus commit more fouls. Learning the contours of the home court or field is another psychological explanation, as is the claim that home athletes protect their “turf” in a manner similar to the territoriality displayed by animals.

Some argue that playing in front of home crowds may actually lower athletic performance. Apprehension of performing for an audience may create anxiety. Several studies find a “championship choke,” where the home team has a greater chance of losing the deciding game of a play-off series or a reduced home advantage at “crucial stages of the competition.” The extent of these home disadvantages continues to be debated.

Physiological Effects

One early explanation for the home advantage—fatigue due to travel—incorporates physiological reasons for the home team’s better performance. Athletes, especially professionals, may be “worn down” from the constant travel required by their sport. Such expectations are not well supported by the evidence. The home team often has to travel to the venue as well, and the home advantage does not seem to get larger as seasons progress and travel increasingly takes its toll. Travel would seem to wear equally on competitors in individual sports. Still, the influence of travel has exceedingly small, but significant, effects on the home advantage, with more marked influences found as athletes (or teams) travel across larger numbers of time zones.

Recent research into the physiological bases of the home advantage investigates hormonal and other biological changes prior to sporting events. Athletes, especially those playing on their home court, do show slight increases in some chemicals (e.g., testosterone) that may improve performance. Increased aggression has been found for some athletes facing well-established rivals. However, as with most findings, the evidence is not consistent.

Future Home Advantage Research

As research develops, a greater variety of sports, leagues, geographic locations, and levels of competition will be added to where a home advantage occurs. The list of factors contributing to the advantage will be similarly broadened. One particularly promising line of inquiry looks at changes in levels of the home advantage over time. Studies find the home advantage increases as athletes learn the contours of a new stadium, decreases as leagues market to a nationwide audience, and fluctuates from moment to moment during the course of the athletic event itself. The temporal dynamics of the home advantage are just beginning to be understood.

We know more about the “what” of the home advantage than its “why”: What produces the home advantage in sport is not one thing, but many things. The outcome of any given contest may hinge on one of the factors listed earlier, but it is highly unlikely that all influence the results of a given game. The home advantage is the result of many little effects leading to a better performance by athletes playing in front of a supportive crowd.

D. Randall Smith

See also Fan Loyalty

Further Reading

Courneya, K. S., & Carron, A. V. (1992). The home advantage in sport competitions: A literature review. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 14, 13–27.

Edwards, J., & Archambault, D. (1989). The home-field advantage. In J. H. Goldstein (Ed.), Sports, games, and play: Social and psychological viewpoints (2nd ed.,; pp. 333–370). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nevill, A. M., & Holder, R. L. (1999). Home advantage in sport: An overview of studies on the advantage of playing at home. Sports Medicine, 28, 221–236.

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