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Do home crowds have an impact on games?

Football homecoming 2
Wartburg students cheer on the Knights at the annual Homecoming football game Saturday at Walston-Hoover Stadium. — Alyssa Noble

The stands were packed with Wartburg fans Saturday afternoon of homecoming as they awaited kickoff between their undefeated, No. 6-ranked Knights and the 2-3 Dubuque Spartans. It didn’t take long for the fans to have something to cheer about, as the Knights cruised to a dominating 42-9 homecoming victory.

Both the football and volleyball teams are undefeated in Iowa Conference home games this year at a combined 4-0 and despite the small sample size, you can’t help but think playing at home has something to do with it.

“I think there’s something to playing at home. It’s probably not a clear-cut advantage all the time but you always like to play at home,” Wartburg head football coach Rick Willis said.

And to that, Willis would be right. Since 2001, his teams are a combined 57-14 at home, an astounding .800 winning percentage. On the road during the same time span, the team is 58-18, winning 76 percent of their games. It turns out the Knights are highly effective both at home and on the road, but why are they better at home?

According to “Scorecasting,” a sports insights book, vocal fans do matter, but not in the way you might think.

“Once the game gets started, it’s your fans that will help you through those moments when you really need them to,” Wartburg co-head volleyball coach Jennifer Walker said.

This is the common misconception that most coaches and players have toward fans; that teams feed off the energy of a home crowd or that opponents make mistakes or can be intimidated by heckling antagonists.

Walker is not wrong for thinking so and I myself believed in it. However, it’s simply not true. From statistical analysis, researchers have found little to no evidence supporting the idea that crowds can influence a team or player’s ability or make a visiting team’s performance worse.

What fans can influence: the referees and the calls they make.

After looking at home field advantage in professional sports leagues, “Scorecasting” concluded that officials are indeed biased. In fact, referee bias toward the home team is “the most significant contributor to home field advantage.”

Despite the clear advantages officials are giving to the home team and the incentives home teams get for winning in their friendly confines (higher attendance, greater revenue, etc.), refs are making these calls without knowing so. The coaches and players may be unaware, too.

“I think for the most part they are pretty neutral,” Walker said. “I think that, hopefully, they are not getting influenced that way.”

In soccer, referees have complete discretion of extra time based on stoppages throughout the match from injuries and substitutions among other things that might halt a match with a continuous clock.

When a home team was down after 90 minutes, it was found that refs regularly added more extra time for that team, on average four minutes in 750 La Liga games examined. If the team was up after regulation, refs added just two minutes.

Doesn’t sound like much evidence? Let’s look at football.

Football is a bit harder to define official bias because most calls are ambiguous. However, when looking at penalties, given to home and away teams in the NFL, home teams on average receive about half a penalty less per game and are charged with fewer yards per penalty than the visiting team.

When looking at crucial situations in the game, that penalty bias became even greater.

Perhaps the most convincing piece of information comes from the invention of instant replay and coaches challenges. Since being introduced in the late 1990’s, the home-team success rate in the NFL dropped from 58.5 percent to 56 percent, or a 29.4 percent drop in home field advantage (home field advantage starts only once above the 50 percent threshold).

So far this season, Wartburg hasn’t needed to rely on referee bias to win close games. They’ve won by an average of 30.3 points this season. A big reason why is because of the players on the field.

“It comes down to the quality of your team versus the quality of the other team more than it does where the game is being played,” Willis said.

With the game tied 7-7 near the end of the first quarter, Wartburg had the ball in their own territory looking to take the lead. Wide receiver Taylor Jacobsmeier had put a double move on Dubuque safety Darren Myles which would have resulted in a likely touchdown, but Myles was called for clear pass interference.

On the very next play, Logan Schrader hit Robbie Anstoetter in the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown. What fans may not have noticed was Anstoetter was jostling for position with the Dubuque cornerback and appeared to get away with offensive pass interference.

Perhaps the ref got it right with the no-call. Perhaps the play was a perfect example of home field advantage.

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