Your aren’t going to like this.
I don’t like this and I wrote it. In my mind, it attacks the very foundation of the game I love so much. But I’m filled with a sense of academic integrity to report on my findings, even if I don’t like my findings. So bear with me and read with an open mind.
Home field advantage is very real. We can all agree on that. The professional athletes in professional sports, the older, hardened men and women of athletics, are influenced by the venue in which they play. In college football, with huge stadiums looming over young kids playing an emotional game, the effect is magnified. This, for the college football fan, is what college football is all about. This is why 75% of the ACC sucks.
But what creates home field advantage? The screaming fan likes to believe that his perturbation of air molecules, along with the butterfly in
Those with experience in the game also have felt the affect of riding long hours on a bus or plane and dressing in a pink locker room, just a little dehydrated, just a little tighter than usual, just a little distracted by an unfamiliar environment.
One goal of mine since establishing this blog was to quantify home field advantage. Early on, I found consistently that home field advantage across the country in college football was worth about 3 to 3.5 points. But how does that vary by team?
When I started, I was hoping to produce a list like this one offered up by a wizened reader:
With a few minor changes to match my own biases (e.g. my personal opinion of ACC football). But I had to do this statistically, objectively, and reproducibly.
For my purposes here, home field advantage is defined as the opponent adjusted differential between home and road performance. A good home field environment can also work in other ways—it aids recruiting, it inspires future and current boosters to open their check books, it fills the athletes with a sense of pride and respect for their program that improves the work in practices, etc—but I’m not concerning myself with these for now. This analysis looks exclusively at the difference between how a team performs at home and how it performs on the road.
With that in mind, I think it is also important to establish that an “advantage” in college football that doesn’t show up on the scoreboard is not really an advantage. Sure, it might be fun to hold out your arms and slap them together like a giant reptile with 75,000 other people, but if it doesn’t show up on the scoreboard its just entertainment, it's not an advantage.
Using all games since 1987 as my sample, after controlling for the strength of the team and its competition and removing teams with an insufficient representation, I found that almost every team in the country has experienced a home field advantage (with the notable exception of Navy which apparently plays better in the more liberal environments outside of Annapolis).
The teams on the list above do not fare well. Tigers in cages, stadiums that seat small metropolises, and a thousand combined years of tradition aside, LSU comes in behind La-La and Louisiana Tech, Ohio State behind Ohio and Kent State, and Penn State eeks out an extra .2 points at home than Pitt in their oversized, undermanned condiment stadium.
Instead, coming in at number 1, and with little doubt, are the Rainbow Warriors. The distance a team must travel to play
After that, the list seems rather random. Blue fields are apparently difficult to adjust to. And instead of
These results disturbed me, so I went in search of an explanation. I tried to looking at conference games (and all games in weeks 5-12 for independents) in an effort to control the sample bit, but the list looks similar-- still dominated by the WAC.
I next thought that I might find something in close games (final point margin was 7 or less), where the crowd has the most effect. Instead, I found that home field advantage almost disappears completely. This, I thought, was the most condemning evidence of them all.
(Click to see a larger version)
For completeness, I've also included 95% confidence intervals. This means that you can be 95% confident that the real value of the team's home field advantage lies somewhere in that range.
My first, second, third, … , and tenth reactions to all these results were that there must be something wrong with my analysis, something wrong with the data, something wrong with my computer, my statistical package, the interaction of electrons on the atomic level or the universe as a whole. NO WAY does No.
But go and yell your heads off anyways, pace in the living room, curse, swear, pray, and curse some more and refuse to change your underwear if you think it helps. That’s the Atlas of college football.
P.S. I have two more ideas that will take me a little longer to apply but may interest the engaged fan. I'm going to control for the field surface and the distance traveled to see what results that gives me, but it will take me a little while to organize all the data and design the analysis, but stay tuned.