Home Advantage: Blessing and Curse

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Humans are no doubt territorial. This territoriality manifests itself in our athletic endeavors also, as a well-known phenomenon called the home advantage. Simply put, home advantage means the persistence of home teams winning a majority of games. This phenomenon has been around as long as team competition has been in existence but did not receive scientific study until 1977.

Schwartz and Barsky (1977) did the first psychological study of home advantage. Given that this phenomenon indeed exists, Schwartz and Barsky intended to find why it exists. Before this study, hypotheses abounded as to the cause of home advantage (travel fatigue, lack of familiarity with the home playing area, crowd noise, etc.). Schwartz and Barsky studied the four most popular sports in North America: football, baseball, hockey and basketball. Football was studied at the professional and collegiate levels, baseball at the Major League level, hockey at the National Hockey League level, and basketball at a regional collegiate level. All four sports were studied at home and away venues; basketball was also studied at neutral venues. Strong versus weak teams was studied for baseball and hockey. Small, medium and large audience sizes were studied for baseball. This study yielded five substantial results.

First, home advantage is most pronounced in basketball and hockey, and least in football and baseball. Second, home team advantage is mostly attributable to audience support. These two findings complement each other because crowd noise is louder for the indoor venues of basketball and hockey than the outdoor venues of football and baseball. More specifically, basketball enjoys a stronger home advantage than hockey and baseball suffers a weaker home advantage than football. The reason for this could be that a basketball court is smaller than a hockey rink, allowing more cheering fans into the arena. Also, at most ballparks, nearly half of the seats are beyond first and third base. These fans away from the infield, where most of the action is, possibly diminish the effect their cheering may have. Seating at a football stadium is more uniform.

Third, Schwartz and Barsky suggest that more effective offense rather than defense is the major factor underlying home advantage. That is, high audience support leads to the home team performing better on offense, not defense. Fourth, home advantage varies by team quality. Home advantage is most evident when the home team is strong and the visiting team is weak. Finally, home advantage is as important as team quality in determining performance. Therefore, winning at home is crucial to a team’s overall success.

Two minor findings were also reported. First, home advantage was the same for college and professional football. Second, at neutral venues, college basketball teams did worse than at home venues, but better than at away venues.

Nowhere are these results more evident than at Cameron Indoor Stadium, home to the Duke University men’s basketball team. This simple arena in Durham, North Carolina boasts the best home advantage in all of NCAA Division I athletics, perhaps in all of competitive sport. Every game is sold out. In fact, students pack the arena so tight, many sit on the floor, just inches from the court. The crowd is an ocean of blue and white. Noise from the crowd is deafening. Fans become so frenzied during these games, they have come to be affectionately known as the “Cameron Crazies”. Duke fans are so fervent, they have been known to hand out sheets at the turnstiles, detailing what to chant and when. These sheets are updated for almost every game. This allows them to take advantage of an opponent who, for example, was recently arrested. A loss at Cameron is a rare occurrence for Duke. As Schwartz and Barsky stated, this home dominance is a reflection of performance: from 1984 to 1994, Duke competed in eleven straight NCAA tournament appearances,...
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