As leagues and teams continue to work through solutions to their complicated returns in the COVID-19 era, there’s one critical competitive question they won’t be able to answer until the games and matches resume.
What happens to the home-field advantage if fans aren’t in the stands?
“That’s what I’m most interested in,” said Sascha Paruk, the lead oddsmaker for Sports Betting Dime. “Having a season unlike any other that we can use almost as like a control study.”
Here are four unknowns about the on-field effects of non-existent or limited crowds:
1. What happens in the final minutes of a tight game?
Some professional drivers say they felt less pressure racing without fans because no one was around to watch them potentially mess up. That mind-set will be especially interesting in isolated situations in close games, like shootouts in hockey, free throws in basketball or a kicker lining up for the go-ahead field goal. Will those athletes perform at a higher level without the extra sets of eyes on them?
Conversely, how does the lack of atmosphere affect a home team on defense, when players are used to feeding off the energy of thousands of screaming fans?
2. How much (if at all) do penalties decrease?
The most visible impact of a hostile home crowd comes when an opposing offensive lineman jumps before the snap. With no fans to distract linemen or drown out the quarterback’s cadence, some oddsmakers expect to see fewer false starts.
But what about other penalties? Florida’s Kevin Taylor celebrated a 2015 touchdown against East Carolina with a throat-slashing gesture; the ensuing 15-yard penalty gave the Pirates a short field and helped them cut the deficit back to one score. Would Taylor have made the same gesture (and drawn the same flag) in front of empty seats? Or would Ole Miss receiver Elijah Moore still have pretended to urinate like a dog (earning a 15-yard penalty that helped cost his team the Egg Bowl) if there were no hostile fans to taunt at Mississippi State last season?
3. Which teams will be at the biggest disadvantage?
Because the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, the Saints might be at a relative disadvantage if there are no/reduced crowds — including in Week 1 against the Bucs. Other teams with intimidating home environments, like the Gators or Seahawks, could also be negatively affected, although we don’t know how large that impact will be.
We also don’t know what types of teams will be affected the most. Will veteran teams handle the eeriness better because they’ve been around the game longer? Or does that experience become a negative because the odd environment is so much different than what they’ve faced for years?
4. How does this affect recruiting?
A great game-day scene is one of the major selling points in recruiting. Although teams can mimic a pre-pandemic environment in other ways (like multimedia and virtual reality), it won’t be the same.
Every team in the nation will have its home crowds affected by the pandemic, so it’s possible that no programs are especially helped or hindered from the change. But it’s also possible that some programs with traditionally strong atmospheres — like Auburn or Florida State — take a bigger hit with empty bleachers. If that happens, then the coronavirus’ effects will continue long past this season.
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