Study Finds Home-Field Advantage in Soccer Doesn’t Rely on Spectators

A new study found that home sides, more than away teams, continued to win football matches played even without spectators during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A study by Germany-based researchers found that home field advantage in soccer cannot be easily explained by the recognizable benefits of having home supporters present, especially when stadiums sit empty during the pandemic. (Credit: German Sports University)

(CN) — In the storied tradition of football — or soccer, as it’s called in the U.S. — a peculiar phenomenon has emerged: The home team wins more often than the away team in a pattern that repeats itself in stadiums and muddy turf patches across the globe. 

Will a football team playing in front of their endearing but demanding home supporters play more aggressively or utilize direct attacking strategies that could tip the balance of the game in their favor?

Does a match referee facing the jeers of home-side fans knowingly or unknowingly issue decisions in a game that favor the home side more than the away team?

A study released Monday by researchers based in Germany who examined more than 40,000 game results makes an assertion that may ruffle the feathers — or colorful scarves and team flags — of the most loyal supporters.

Researchers from the German Sports University Cologne said in a statement released with the study that the pattern of home-field advantage has been empirically proven time and time again.

In football leagues across Europe, for example, prior research has found that home teams win an average of 50% of matches played in their stadiums.

Variations exist, of course. In Germany’s Bundesliga, football teams playing at home only win an average of 47% of games at their home stadiums.

Study co-author Daniel Memmert said the tens of thousands of games examined by researchers included matches played before and during the Covid-19 pandemic, including 1,000 European professional games played since spring of last year.

“This involved all matches from ten seasons, from ten leagues, from six European countries,” Memmert said. 

Study co-author Fabian Wunderlich said the analysis also covered the activity of sports betting sites and companies in order to gauge how the betting market assessed how the once-steady phenomenon of home field advantage would factor during the pandemic.

“We know from numerous studies that the betting market rarely gets it wrong. What’s more, betting odds have the advantage that, unlike real outcomes, they are less susceptible to random influences,” Wunderlich said.

In home games, it’s fairly common to see a referee — urged on by throngs of chanting home supporters — sanction or discipline away players more often while doling out relatively lenient decisions for home players, even when harsh tackles are carried out equally by both sides.

But researchers note in their study that referee decisions are influenced by a host of biases and circumstances. They found the “crowd-induced referee bias” faded when spectators were barred from filing out stadium columns.

The findings revealed referee decisions no longer sided more with home teams and that both teams playing without spectators deployed equally aggressive attacking styles, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal PloS ONE.

“For disciplinary sanctions, no significant differences are present in absence of spectators anymore, except for yellow cards that show a slight home disadvantage with home teams receiving more yellow cards,” the study stated. “This is clear evidence that the referee bias completely disappears or is even slightly reversed in empty stadiums.”

Perhaps the most jarring finding is that even without the enthralled, intimidating energy of home supporters in a stadium, the phenomenon of home field advantage persisted during the pandemic.

It’s notable that away teams have to travel long distances and may feel fatigued during matches and that home teams may perform better under the weight of pressure from their local supporters, news media and others.

“Our results show that although the relevant parameters, such as goal kicks and yellow and red cards remain very similar without supporters, this has only a limited effect on the actual home advantage when directly comparing pre-Covid-19 matches with supporters and those played during the pandemic without supporters,” Memmert said.

Researchers’ findings regarding home field advantage appeared to extend directly to amateur football matches, which are typically played with relatively fewer or zero spectators, according to study co-author Matthias Weigelt, co-author from Paderborn University in Germany.

“We also looked at almost 6,000 games from the Kreisliga A (District Premier League) and saw that home-field advantage applies not only to professionals but also to recreational kickers, even though they rarely, if ever, get to enjoy full stands and loud chanting fans,” Weigelt said.

Home teams continued to win even without the recognizable benefits of having home supporters present for home games.

Researchers said a number of factors should be considered but that the impact of the pandemic, and the strict health measures it required, still needs to be examined in order to understand home field advantage.

“When drawing conclusions on the causes for home advantage, interactions between conceivable causes need to be considered, such as a possible influence of crowd presence on territoriality, familiarity, and psychological effects of expectations,” the study said. “These could include attempts to increase familiarity in home matches, minimize travel exhaustion, stimulate territoriality or ensure that player expectation and tactical adjustments in away matches do not hinder success.”

%d bloggers like this: