Does Home-Field Advantage Matter During A Pandemic?

Posted on December 30, 2020 - Last Updated on December 29, 2020

Since July 2020, sports fans and bettors have mostly watched their teams from their respective couches.

There have been a few exceptions. Some NFL stadiums allow fans, for instance, but none allow more than 25% capacity.

Pre-pandemic, home-field advantage impacted every sport to varying degrees. Of the major sports, home teams won the majority of their games across the board.

But what does the data show during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Here’s what we found for MLB, NFL and college football. We excluded NBA, NHL and college basketball due to small sample sizes.

Home-field advantage for MLB

In 2019, here’s how home teams fared during the regular season:

  • Home Team Record: 1286-1143
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 52.9%

Here are the 2020 numbers. You’ll notice there are fewer games because the pandemic shortened the MLB season to only 60 games:

  • Home Team Record: 500-398
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 55.7%

Some of this can be attributed to the random variance of a season. But considering that home teams performed better in 2020 than they did in 2019, it’s hard to say that fans make a tangible difference toward MLB teams’ success.

It’s possible that factors such as park familiarity and sleeping in a familiar bed matter more in baseball, as it’s the one sport where players are expected to perform almost every day.

Home-field advantage for NFL

Here’s how NFL home teams performed in 2019:

  • Home Team Record: 132-123-1
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 51.8%

And here’s how they’ve performed through 16 weeks of the 2020 season:

  • Home Team Record: 120-119
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 50.2%

Again, a caveat: some teams have fans, but no stadiums are allowing more than 25% capacity. And most are allowing less than that.

On the surface, this makes sense. In general, it would seem that fans at NFL games have more of an impact than at MLB games during the regular season.

The MLB postseason might be different, as stadiums are regularly sold out. But in a normal year, NFL stadiums are mostly packed.

It doesn’t look too fun to try to play quarterback at CenturyLink Field in Seattle as a visitor, for example.

Home-field advantage for college football

Like the NFL, certain college football stadiums allow fans below maximum capacity, while others don’t allow fans at all.

Here’s how college football teams did at home in 2019:

  • Home Team Record: 541-287
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 65.3%

Followed by the same categories in 2020:

  • Home Team Record: 319-214
  • Percent of Total Games Won by the Home Team: 59.8%

There’s a pretty big difference here. Again, some of this can perhaps be attributed to variance.

But it would make sense that home-field advantage is impactful in college football, a sport known for its game-day culture and raucous fans.

Takeaways

So, does home-field advantage matter during a pandemic? Yes. But in football, not as much as usual.

In baseball, it likely doesn’t matter in the regular season, even if teams fared better at home in 2020 than in 2019. That uptick can probably be attributed to randomness.

In basketball, the jury is still out. The NBA finished last season in a neutral court bubble and just kicked off its 2020-21 season.

As for college basketball, we don’t have a meaningful sample size yet, considering most teams haven’t gotten into the thick of their conference schedules.

But NBA and college hoops home teams each won over 59% of their games last season, so it will be fascinating to see what happens this year.

It’s good to know all of this if you’re betting, but keep in mind: oddsmakers likely do, too. And they’ll adjust accordingly.

Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski / AP
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Joe Boozell

Joe Boozell has also been a college sports writer for NCAA.com since 2015. His work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, FoxSports.com and NBA.com. Growing up, Boozell squared off against both Anthony Davis and Frank Kaminsky in the Chicagoland basketball scene ... you can imagine how that went.

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