Empty stadium ‘ghost games’ increase home team losses

When the supporters are absent, the home team loses its grip. Or it’s a way of interpreting data from a new study.

Most teams tout their home team’s advantage. They claim that enthusiastic fans can inspire them to do their best. But COVID-19 put that claim to the test during the 2019-2020 European football season.

Last year, teams were scheduled to play in front of vacant stadium seats. Researchers at the University of Salzburg in Austria sorted the performance statistics for these so-called “ghost games”. The empty stadiums have helped level the playing field for visiting teams, researchers are now reporting.

Home teams were pretty much the same as before COVID-19 started to spread. But the home teams won less than the year before, which means they lost more. The referees also handed out many other rude calls to the home teams during uncrowded games.

Simply put: “No fans, no home advantage,” says sports psychologist Fabio Richlan. He and Michael Leitner, also a sports psychologist, shared their findings on August 19 in Frontiers in sport and working life.

Losing your mind?

The two compared the results of 645 games for the 2018-19 season to the results of 641 ghost games a year later. These matches involved teams from Spain, England, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The home team winning rate fell 8.3 percentage points from 48.1% to 39.8%. The loss rate climbed by almost identical 8.4 percentage points (from 27.6% to 36%) when playing in front of empty seats. Richlan and Leitner also looked at how often the referees had fouled in the form of yellow cards. This serves as a measure of how fan pressure on the referees might have helped change the winning and losing records. Without fans, fouls against home teams increased by around 26%, the team found. At the same time, calls against away teams only increased by around 3%.

“The referees are indeed giving the home teams the advantage because of the crowd,” Leitner concludes. The new results suggest that this referee bias tends to go away when fans do. While it’s natural for people to change their minds under pressure from others, says Leitner, I hope this new data can help referees become more aware of their biases. “When you know it, you can train against it.”


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