During the Pandemic, Home Field Advantage Has Lost Its Edge

Fewer fans means fewer goals and fewer wins for host teams in European soccer

General sunset view of Kashima Stadium during the Olympic football bronze medal match between United States and Australia at Kashima Stadium on August 05, 2021
Olympic soccer matches were played in front of an empty stadium. Here, the U.S. women's team is pictured playing Australia in the bronze medal match of the Games. Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Ask any athlete about the importance of homefield advantage and they will tell you there’s nothing like the roar of the crowd to spur them on. But what if fans aren’t filling the stadium as usual as happened during the pandemic?

Researchers at University of Leeds and Northumbria University in England decided to find out. They reviewed match results for soccer—or football, as it called across the pond—in several European leagues played during Covid-19 to half-filled and empty stadiums. Not surprisingly, homefield advantage was considerably curtailed—nearly cut in half in some cases—by the lack of fans rooting on the home team, reports Nick Lavars of New Atlas.

“This is a really important investigation that contributes to the long-standing debate on the main reasons for the home advantage in sport—a worldwide phenomenon affecting team sports at all levels, from recreational to elite,” study researcher Sandy Wolfson, a sports psychologist at Northumbria, tells New Atlas.

According to the study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, home teams saw their advantage nearly halved by the lack of fans. They won far fewer games and scored fewer goals without homies cheering them on, reports Emily Henderson of News Medical. That resulted in fewer championship points per game, which is how most European soccer leagues rank winners.

Researchers found that with fans present, teams won 0.39 points more per game at home than away. Without fans, that advantage was almost cut in half with teams getting only 0.22 points more at home than away, News Medical reports.

The lack of crowds also had an impact on scoring. With fans in attendance, home teams scored 0.29 goals more per game than away teams. Without fans, home teams scored just 0.15 goals more than the visitors.

For the study, researchers looked at data from 4,844 home games in 11 countries, including English Premier League, German Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain, Italian Serie A and other top-tier leagues.

“This new knowledge reveals that in the most basic sense, fans attendance matters,” study lead author Dane McCarrick, who works at the University of Leeds’ School of Psychology, says in a statement.

Interestingly, the lack of fans also had an impact on referees. The thought has always been that thousands of screaming fans influence how officials make calls during the games. Data from this research showed that more penalties were called against the home team in empty stadiums while a similar number of fouls were called against the away team.

“When a team’s dominance over the game was included in the analysis, the associations were much weakened for fouls and yellow cards and, remarkably, become non-significant for red cards,” McCarrick tells New Atlas. “This shows, for the first time, that the influence of home fans on referees mostly disappears when the style of play is taken into account.”

American sports were not studied in this research. However, a review of NFL scoring statistics from the 2020 season showed that home teams outscored away teams by just 14 points—the second-lowest scoring margin on record, reports Nora Princiotti for The Ringer.