It is one of the best-known phenomena in all team-orientated sports. The so-called home advantage posits that teams playing at their home stadium have a pronounced advantage over their opponents.
At first, the phenomenon seems intuitively obvious. There are many factors that can be raised to explain the home advantage. Given that football in the UK today has many regulations to ensure impartiality and fairness, the factors are generally considered to be psychological. They include the effect of the greater presence of supporters for the home team (which is normally – though not always – the case), a general familiarity the home team has with the ground, and the rigors of travel that effect the away team.
Football in the UK, however, is in a situation that actually tends to minimise many of these factors. No team in the EPL, for example, needs to suffer the drastic changes in climate or the jet lag associated with – for example – an American baseball team crossing the continent, or any team sport played at the international level where teams have to travel across the globe to compete.
And yet, the home advantage would seem to be confirmed within the EPL – and pretty much beyond doubt. In the 2018-19 EPL – to take one example – the home team won in 47% of marches compared to the away team in 34%, with the rest being draws.
But as clear a picture as this may seem, it is somewhat complicated by several factors. There is even a compelling case to be made that there is simply no such thing as the home advantage. For example, a high ranked team versus a low ranked team is a match that can be expected to go the one way – regardless of who is playing at home and who is playing away.
Furthermore, data that only takes into account the number of wins compared with losses ignores the many other metrics by which a team’s performance may be measured. A team may win at home, but did they really perform better than at the away matches that they also won? Possession, shots on target, and goal margins are all ignored by this simple totting up of games won versus games lost.
A further consideration worth keeping in mind might be that a team’s performance and psychological advantage (or lack thereof) may also be related to the size and quality of the support, regardless of whether that support is cheering them on at the home ground or elsewhere. Not every club in EPL has similarly enthusiastic and loyal support, and they certainly don’t all have it in the same numbers. What role does this play?
The Covid-19 epidemic, despite all the havoc and depredations it has wreaked on football everywhere, offers a unique chance to assess this phenomenon. With stadiums empty, we can perhaps assess the effect this has had on the purported psychological advantage afforded to home teams. To what extent is the home advantage down to the familiar ground or the familiar roar of the home supporters?
The Declining Home Advantage
In 2017, Sky Sports undertook a broad assessment of every league result since 1888 in order to shed some light on the puzzling phenomenon that is the ‘home advantage’.
By comparing home results to away results over this massive span of time (essentially the whole history of football as we know it) they concluded that the home advantage if it exists, seems to have declined steadily over the years.
It was in 1895/96 that the ratio of home wins to away wins reached its peak. In this year, home teams won 64.6 % of their games, out of 480 games played over two professional tiers.
It was exactly 120 years later when that figure reached its all-time low at 41% across 2036 games overall four tiers. There have been some aberrations, but generally, the lowest figures have been seen in recent years.
Quite what explains this trend is something of a mystery. Perhaps less strenuous travel in modern times plays a role? Perhaps crowds have become less hostile? Crowds are certainly more strictly controlled today than they were in the past, and this could certainly be a factor.
Covid-19 and Empty Stadiums
Germany’s Bundesliga was the first national football league to recommence play after the Coronavirus outbreak, with teams returning to the pitch in May of 2020. Based on what was observed then and since, it would seem that fan presence – and not just home ground familiarity – is very much a part of the home advantage.
Faced with empty stadiums, the performance of the home teams in the Bundesliga crashed, with teams on average winning 33% of games in empty stadiums compared with 43% in full ones.
Analyst Lukas Keppler, of the analytics firm Impect, even fielded the concept of a “negative home advantage”, noting that for the first time in football history, it would appear to be easier to win away from home than at a familiar but empty home ground.
Crowd Discrepancies (and Safety)
When clubs with much larger supporter bases travel to play teams with smaller ones and smaller football grounds, there is very often a massive psychological advantage derived from a perception of the clear discrepancy between the supporter base sizes.
Yet the situation is not quite as simple as that. For one thing, stadium size will limit the number of supporters that can be accommodated by the stadium. Furthermore, clubs with large supporter bases tend also to be the best clubs in the league. When they play lower ranked teams with fewer supporters, the games are therefore rarely important or deciding matches. This in turn means that fewer fans will travel to see them, leading to a fairly evenly matched crowds (and less pronounced ‘psychological advantage’ where this is concerned).
Of course, every now and again a match between a high ranked away team with many supporters and a lower ranked home team with fewer will draw fans in larger numbers. When this happens, safety concerns become an issue. Does this affect the home advantage?
Thankfully, where the EPL is concerned, there are strict fan safety regulations, built up over the years and in response to a number of disasters in the 20th century. These regulations ensure a standard of safety across the football grounds of clubs playing in the EPL. Structural and fire safety are more or less guaranteed. Most football stadiums are well equipped to deal with fire hazards and include clearly marked fire exits and fire extinguishers within reach at all locations throughout the stadium.
All of this means that the enthusiastic behaviour of even large numbers of fans in stadiums of any size can be not only tolerated but encouraged. If this is what contributes to the famous home advantage, then it seems set to remain a definite factor in football, even if one a little difficult to properly define.