Football is still everything without its fans

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The home-team advantage is a well-known phenomenon in sport, with home teams in the English football leagues 12% more likely to win over the away team.”

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Football attracts one of the biggest audiences, on average between 20,000 to 75,000 fans visit each Premier league game. Therefore, it is no wonder that the famous quote from Celtic Manager Jock Stein, ‘football is nothing without its fans’, feels somewhat fitting in the current climate. The financial impact of this on the football clubs is callosal with one of their main revenues being the facility to enable fans to watch their beloved teams close up and in person. Of course, this has also had a major effect on the fans, with them now having to swap the match atmosphere and the half-time pies, for a tv remote and the comfort of their sofa at home. Questions are beginning to be asked to whether it has impacted the athlete’s performance? Has it psychologically influenced their game? Is that it for the home-team advantage?

The home-team advantage is a well-known phenomenon in sport, with home teams in the English football leagues 12% more likely to win over the away team. The home-team advantage is due to a number of factors such as familiarity of the stadium, less travel time and crowd support. Crowd support plays a pivotal role in determining referees decisions and influencing players performance, however this has now been taken away from the game.

Social pressures from the home crowd tend to have a bias effect on the referee’s decisions such as more punishments are given to the away side for foul play, whilst they tend to turn more of a blind eye to the home team. Additionally, it has been found that they taper how much extra time they add depending if the home side needs a goal to win. One study found an average of 18 seconds more time was given to the home team if they needed it. In contrast, now that the games are played behind closed doors the referee bias has decreased, if not stopped. Using data from 6,481 football matches, including 1,489 that were played with no spectators across 17 countries, there was a one-third reduction in yellow cards presented to the away side. In the Premier League alone for the 2019/20 season there was a 28% decrease in referee bias in games played behind closed doors. Furthermore, extra time given has also reduced, with home-sides in German football gaining 50 seconds less time than when the games were played pre-Covid). Consequently, on referee bias alone, it seems that the home-team advantage may have disappeared.

Home crowds can also positively and detrimentally influence an athlete’s performance through social facilitation or inhibition. Some athletes may find that the supportive home crowds result in social facilitation whereby the presence of the audience increase their arousal and motivation resulting in them playing optimally. Whilst, crowds that jeer and are unsupportive can negatively impact performance, which tends to be the case for the visiting sides especially moments before a penalty kick. Consequently, with the games now being played with no spectators, this impacts the athletes that need an audience to maintain their level of arousal. For instance, crowd support has been found to be especially helpful in the second half when the athletes are mentally and physically fatigued, therefore without the crowd to spur them on, some footballers are not as ‘energised’ to put the extra effort in, succumbing to their fatigue and playing poorly. In the other hand, some athletes may find that the presence of an audience socially inhibits their performance, especially if they perform in front of a larger audience than what they are familiar with. This can be seen in the FA cup when lower level teams play against bigger teams such as the Shrewsbury versus Liverpool. Therefore, these athletes that suffer from social inhibition, may actually be playing better behind closed doors as they have not got the social pressure from the fans to do well.

Despite all this, researchers have recently demonstrated that footballers are beginning to adapt to playing behind closed doors, with the ‘ghost effect’ (no audience) having less and less of an impact on overall performance. So yes, maybe, football is still everything it was without its fans present and we will just have to enjoy it from the comfort of our sofa for a little longer.

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