NFL Home-field Advantage Could Be Wiped Out By Playing Behind Closed Doors

When professional sports are allowed to resume in the U.S., they will emerge into a vastly different landscape from the one they inhabited until the novel coronavirus pandemic ground the world to a halt two months ago.

The most evident and significant change will be the absence of fans in stadiums and arenas, with games set to be played behind closed doors for the foreseeable future in compliance with social distancing measures set out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

While watching the NBA, the MLB or the NHL without fans would make for a weird experience, the impact of playing games behind closed doors would be far bigger in the NFL where crowds play a huge role. Imagine the Kansas City Chiefs defending a slender lead at home without Arrowhead Stadium's deafening din in the background, or the Green Bay Packers welcoming the Chicago Bears playing out one of the NFL's most heated rivalries in front of an empty Lambeau Field.

If the lack of fans would make for an alien atmosphere, there is a far more significant impact deriving by playing behind closed doors as the Bundesliga has shown over the last two weeks.

Germany's top-flight became the first major European soccer league to return despite the COVID-19 outbreak when it resumed the season on May 15.

In the three rounds of games played since the resumption, the home field factor appears to have been all but wiped out. Of the 27 games played so far, only five have registered home wins, a winning percentage of 18.5. In the eight months up to the coronavirus-enforced lockdown, the home wins ratio stood at 43.3 percent.

By contrast, 12 of the 27 games played over the last three weeks have been won by the away team, meaning visiting teams have won 44.4 percent of the games played this month, compared with 34.6 percent of the fixtures played between August and the suspension two months ago.

Borussia Dortmund, Bundesliga
The final result is displayed on the scoreboard following the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and FC Bayern Munich at Signal Iduna Park on May 26 in Dortmund, Germany. All Bundesliga games have been played behind closed doors since the league resumed in mid-May. Federico Gambarini/Pool/Getty

March, incidentally, was the month with the fewest away wins—a meagre two compared to 16 in the previous month, 14 in November, 13 in September, 11 and 10 in December and August and nine in January. October was similarly difficult for away teams, with just three wins throughout the month.

"Home advantage—traditionally one of the most important factors when calculating soccer odds—is diminishing fast across Europe to the point where it is now almost negligible," Andrew Vouris, chief operating officer of Seattle-based betting firm Unikrn tells Newsweek.

"Oddsmakers are now giving approximately a 0.1 goal advantage in the Bundesliga, dropping from 0.3 goals in that division beforehand."

Home comfort wasn't exclusive to the Bundesliga either. A total of 288 games were played in the Premier League up until the season was halted in March, with away teams winning 30.2 percent of them.

In the NFL, meanwhile, it is generally accepted wisdom that home teams have a three-point advantage. More so than in other sports, football crowds can directly influence the outcome of plays, chiefly by derailing the road team quarterback's snap count.

The sight of quarterbacks calling a timeout shortly before snapping the ball as they can't communicate with their linemen is a common sight across NFL venues during the season.

A look at the figures, however, reveals road wins are far from an unlikely occurrence. Last season road teams won 48 percent of games during the regular season, with the Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints each winning seven times away from home.

The 123 road wins last season was the highest tally over the last five years, during which road teams have won an average of 43.6 percent of games.

In 2018, road teams won 100 games, while in the previous two seasons the tally stood at 111 and 107 in 2017 and 2016 respectively. In 2015, meanwhile, there were a combined 118 road wins.

The scenario is somewhat different in the playoffs, where the winning ratio for road teams has exceeded 40 percent just once in the last five seasons.

Excluding the Super Bowl which is played in a neutral venue, last season there were four road wins in 10 playoff games, down from five a year earlier when there were three road wins in the Wild Card round and the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots both won Conference Championship Games away from home.

The 2017 playoffs saw three road wins, an increase of one in the previous year but one fewer than in 2015 when all four wild card round games were won by the road team.

Playing games behind close doors will force teams to adjust to a new reality and potentially lead to even more balanced contests. That, in turn, will also mean a significant change in the betting odds, as bookmakers will have to deal with a vastly reduced home advantage.

"Without that noise [from the crowd], the home field advantage is almost entirely eroded but there is still the familiarity factor and the [lack of] travel factor that will still keep the advantage positive," Steve Baumohl, co-founder and head of trading at RedZone.bet, explains to Newsweek.

"While we are in uncharted territory and will be quick to make adjustments on the fly, we are currently working on a basis of home field advantage for an empty stadium NFL game, in general terms, as about 0.8-1.0 point."

Kansas City Chiefs, fans
Kansas City Chiefs fans cheer on their team against the Houston Texans in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 12 in Kansas City, Missouri. Jamie Squire/Getty
NFL Home-field Advantage Could Be Wiped Out By Playing Behind Closed Doors | Sports