Sports | October 9, 2020 11:15 am

Does Home-Field Advantage Still Exist in Empty NFL Stadiums?

Home teams have only won more games once through four weeks of play

Does Home-Field Advantage Still Exist in the NFL in 2020?
With fewer or no fans in the stands, NFL teams may not have much of a home-field advantage any longer.
Getty Images

During a 2013 game at CenturyLink Field, the 69,000-seat home stadium of the Seahawks, fans made their mark in the Guinness Book of World Records for crowd noise by reaching 137.6 decibels in a win over the visiting New Orleans Saints. The frenzied fans in Seattle, known as the “12th Man,” have often forced opponents to have to shout at each other on the sidelines to be heard. Opposing offenses, meanwhile, typically resort to using a silent snap count at the line because the quarterback’s calls are drowned out by the frenzied atmosphere.

Not this year.

The Seahawks, like many teams in the league, are playing without fans in the stands this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and have therefore lost the home-field advantage the 12th Man seemingly gives them. The question is, do the numbers actually bear that out?

Throughout the NFL, home teams have collectively gone 30-32-1 (.476 win rate) in the first four weeks of the 2020 season (Week 1: 8-8, Week 2: 10-6, Week 3: 6-9-1, Week 4: 6-9; Steelers-Titans not played) and have only won more total games than road teams once. On the surface, those numbers would indicate that home teams that get a big boost from their crowd are struggling this year. (Not the Seahawks, who are 2-0 at home.)

“Obviously, home-field advantage is just not what it has been in the past,” Thomas Gable, the director of race and sportsbook at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, tells InsideHook. “It’s not going to be what it was in years past.”

But compared to last year’s numbers, it might not be as big of a difference as we think.

During normal play last season, home teams collectively went 132-123-1 (.518 win rate), the lowest home win rate since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002 and a mark that eclipsed the previous low set in 2006 (136-120-0, .531). 

When considering this year, it’s probably important to remember the sample size is very small and also somewhat flawed, as there are some teams like the Texans and Dolphins that have been playing with fans in the stands but have still gone winless. Though they are behind right now, home teams could certainly match last season’s .518 win rate by season’s end.

“Home-field advantage still exists, but in a different sense,” Chris Altruda, a national betting industry analyst for PennBets.com, tells InsideHook. “There is still something to be said for having creature comforts available as a home team, whether it’s sleeping in your own bed or maintaining a game-week rhythm. Additionally, the travel protocols for road teams create a different set of rhythms that perhaps only now teams have fully adjusted to with most of them having played two road games.”

That said, there is one area where the lack of fans does help road teams, according to Altruda.

“Some of the better opposing quarterbacks have been able to subtly exploit the lack of crowd noise with hard snap counts on defenses, and not relying on silent counts when backed up deep in their own territory could be a small contributing factor in teams being more effective offensively on the road,” he says.

So the jury is still out on whether the home-crowd boost actually is as much of a factor in wins and losses as oddsmakers tend to peg it as. But be wary of quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger and hard-count demigod Aaron Rodgers, all of whom seem to be benefiting from the newfound peace and quiet on the road. On to Week 5.