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Opinion

Is there still a home-ground advantage without fans?

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30th July, 2020
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Home-ground advantage comes in many forms.

For Liverpool it’s their home supporters singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. For the Eagles it’s the chants of ‘West Coast’. For the English cricket team it’s the Barmy Army. For the New York Yankees it’s the chants of ‘Yankees’ – or of ‘MVP’ if Derek Jeter is there.

But now stadiums are quiet you can only hear the sound of players screaming and shouting. Is there still home ground advantage when there’s no crowd filling the stands?

With the FA Cup final coming up soon at Wembley featuring both Chelsea and Arsenal, will it be a different kind of game without a crowd? We know the stands at the final is normally filled to the brim with fans, so will this year’s play-off without fans exhibit a different approach that captures England and one of the most-watched national cup tournaments around the world?

What about the UFEA Champions League Round of 16 matches? FC Barcelona vs Napoli at Camp Nou would normally attract tens of thousands of screaming Bara fans. Will their absence affect Lionel Messi and co?

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League group B match between FC Barcelona and PSV Eindhoven.

(VI Images/Getty Images)

Is there still a home-ground advantage without home fans?

The Economist looked into this with football, and the graphs it presented shows things have changed.

One factor that influences a game is refereeing decisions. As we know, the referees are normally influenced to give decisions to the home team because of the home crowd, but now it’s completely different. Looking at the EPL, The Economist found “the total share of cards received by home teams has risen from 46 per cent before lockdowns to 50 per cent afterwards”.

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This shows the referees are picking up fouls they might not have when crowds were filling grounds with sound.

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One other example is that home team are not as attacking as they were before the lockdown. The Economist points this out: “Since May, hosts have taken 53 per cent of shots at goal-less than the 55 per cent they took in full stadiums, but enough to give them an edge”.

As we saw on Sunday in the AFL, West Coast had the advantage against Collingwood with a home crowd of 24,000 fans, and they used that to build momentum in the second half and kick 11 goals.

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The biggest crowd Collingwood had played in front of before that match was against Geelong at the same venue, then with 2000 fewer spectators.

So is any crowd an advantage for the home team? Adam Treloar said on AFL 360 that he found the Wes“It was intimidating and something that has not been able to get used to because of no crowds”.

Collingwood was undoubtedly poor, but would they have been beaten so soundly by the Eagles had fans not been allowed? We have seen some odd games played in normally hostile environments, like Geelong-Carlton. In that match the Blues won in Geelong, which was a shock, but maybe it was just that the Cats couldn’t feed off the energy screaming fans would normally give them.

Luke Shuey of the Eagles looks to mark the ball

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The crowd can impact teams in ways we cannot describe. It feels like an extra player. Look at Richmond’s grand final win in 2019 – the fans were key to the victory as much as the players, who fed off the energy.

But it’s hard to say what effect all this might have on a team’s approach. Could it be game plans are still the same as they were before lockdown?

The Economist has a suggestion: “A more plausible reason is that coaches still use conservative line-ups and strategies when playing away, even though hostile officials no longer undermine their best players’ efforts”.

The sweeping idea that home-ground advantage is still there without fans needs to be called into question, because on the evidence we have so far, playing at home isn’t the same without the fans.

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