A very interesting chart from Brian Fremeau:
Sure, home field advantage is at one of its lowest points this season. But it’s not an outlier as much as it appears to be the continuation of a trend.
Home-field advantage in conference games in 2020 by this calculation is only +1.9 points per game, a full 0.9 points less than the +2.8 points per game average over the 14-year span. This could be the indicator of the impact of crowds on home-field advantage that we hypothesized, but there are other recent seasons with comparably small home-field advantages drawn from the data. In 2018, the conference game home-field advantage was only +2.0 points per game, and in 2014 the conference game home-field advantage was at an “all-time” (since 2007) low, at only +1.8 points per game. Neither of those two seasons, nor any of the other games in the span, had any obvious systemic factors such as COVID to suggest home-field advantage should be dramatically impacted. And the relatively steady betting line trend over the last seven seasons suggests that the wisdom of crowds has been picking up not on a precipitous change in home-field advantage, but on something more like a year-over-year trend.
The question, of course, is why that may be the case.
This is just the start of a deeper dive I’d like to take on the subject in the offseason. For one thing, I may be using these overall trends to make subtle changes in the manner in which I apply home-field advantage to FEI ratings and FEI game projections. There are also sample-size variations to consider, but it would be well worth exploring the degree to which these changes are or are not consistent across individual conferences — perhaps especially in the wake of conference realignment shake-ups that have happened over the span.
Are there any other hypotheses to consider? We’ve been conditioned to treat the packed and electric atmosphere of an 80,000-seat stadium as an intimidating environment that can be a difference-maker in a big game. But I’ve been skeptical over the years of how much the crowd itself really matters in comparison to the other factors in play related to home versus road scenarios — the travel, disruptions to routines, familiarity with the facilities, weather, etc. BYU and Coastal Carolina played in front of only 5,000 fans. Would a full house of 20,000 or more have made a bigger difference, were the unique travel circumstances of this game a bigger factor, or was home field not actually much of a factor in Conrad, South Carolina, at all?
I also wonder — and perhaps the conference realignment issues Brian mentions are part of it — if there is less parity within conferences now than there was, say, a decade ago. I’ll be curious to see what, if anything, he finds along these lines before next season.