Home Field Advantage: Does it Exist?

Home field advantage is a trope we hear regularly. It leads us to term some stadiums and arenas as, ‘fortresses,’ or, ‘impenetrable.’ In fact, home field advantage is something that traces a long way back.

Niccolo Macchiavelli wrote about it in his military treatise, “The Prince.” Macchiavelli observed that, during times of war, nations and cities would triumph more frequently when they were defending their homes. Attacking sides trying to invade had less on the line, and would find victory difficult.

But is the same true for sports?

We may use the term, ‘fortress,’ but that could be as far as the military connection goes. Here’s a look at how home field advantage plays a part in sports:

FIFA World Cup

There are some fairly prominent examples of home teams enjoying success. None more famous than England’s sole FIFA World Cup triumph when they hosted the tournament in 1966.

Since 1966, they have not finished higher than fourth in the competition (1990 and 2018), and have failed to qualify a few times.

When we look at the host nations of all World Cups since 1930, there have been six champions that were host nations. Since 1986, when the WC took its’ current format, the host nation has, at the bare minimum, finished in the quarterfinals.

South Africa (2010), when they failed to escape group stages, USA (1994), and Japan (2002) have been the only exceptions. However, Japan was co-host with South Korea in 2002, with the latter making the semifinals.

Summer Olympics

Elsewhere in international competition, the Summer Olympic host nations have also outperformed themselves in comparison to other years.

Of the sixteen host nations since WWII, only two countries have failed to perform significantly higher than their average. Those countries were Canada (27th despite an average place of 21st) and Great Britain (12th in 1948 with an average of 11th).

In 2016 Brazil finished 13th, and had never finished higher than 16th prior to that. China, in 2008, had their only 1st place finish as host nation while Greece had their highest finish (15th) in 2004. Both of Australia’s best finishes came as the host nation (3rd and 4th).

There is a logical explanation for both the World Cup and Summer Olympics, ‘home field advantage.’ The cost of hosting is substantial and nations do not want to be embarrassed.

In some cases, they use it to show their status. Money is pumped into development and facilities, ensuring the athletes are at their premium. Of course, there could also be a psychological factor, where the athletes are motivated to represent their country with pride. Nonetheless, it certainly appears as though home field advantage can and does exist.


International play every four years is one thing, but does home field advantage play a part in domestic competition?

In the NFL, successful teams earn most of their wins at home, scoring more or conceding fewer at home. In 2018, all eight division winners had winning records at home. The worst of all teams was 6-2. In contrast, two of these teams had losing records in away games – New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys, each at 3-5.

When looking at the average margin of victory, there is a substantial difference between teams at home in comparison to away.

New England, who did not lose a home game, had an average margin of victory of 15.9 at home, while they lost by 1.4 points on the road. Even Arizona, who lost by 11.4 points at home, performed worse away.

Overall, in the NFL, the home team wins just under 60 percent of the time.

English Premier League

There is also a clear improvement for teams at home in soccer, with one notable exception: the Tottenham Hotspur. They have won more games away, and have a goal difference of 17, as opposed to 10 at home.

Although Leicester City, Crystal Palace, and Huddersfield also all have marginally better away records.

Every other team has a better home record, and almost always a better goal difference. Previous seasons are also similar, with most teams performing better at home.

Again, there are a range of explanations for this phenomenon, home field advantage.

Motivation in front of fans, familiarity with the conditions, or crowd noise, can influence it. Whatever it is, there is a large amount of evidence for the fact that home field advantage exists.

Although in domestic competitions it isn’t as pronounced as international tournaments, it still exists.

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