Did Covid-19 change home field advantage in the NFL? Let’s explore!

Everyone misses fans in the stands at NFL games in 2020. From the actual fans to the players on the field, from the broadcast booth to the front office, everyone missed fans yelling their hearts out this last NFL season. Another group that missed 70,000+ fans screaming in the stands? The sports betting industry. The traditional “3-point home field advantage”? Gone. Home teams getting an edge on the money line just because they are at home? Gone.

Before COVID-19, there was an undeniable advantage home teams enjoyed every week. Even taking out factors like the Green Bay Packers playing in sub-zero temperatures or the Denver Broncos playing a mile higher in altitude, the fan noise still made a difference. While it’s hard to point one specific thing that the fans do to impact the game, the simple fact of a packed house cheering the home team on somehow created an advantage. Let’s find out whether or not COVID-19 changes the home-field advantage.

Did Home Teams Win Less?

From a purely statistical standpoint, in 2020 with teams not having significant attendance at home, teams won exactly 50% of their home games on average this year. In 2019 with fans allowed? Home teams won 52% of their games on average. Technically, teams did worse in 2020, but not by much. It would be hard to justify an opinion that COVID caused teams to lose more games at home because of this. Two little percentage points isn’t a strong foundation to base an argument on.

What about points scored? Margin of victory?

In 2019, home teams won by on average… -0.20 points. In 2020? -0.21. A statistical tie between 2020 and 2019. Overall, on average, teams didn’t seem to win less or score less at home compared to a season with fans in the stands.

Hard to Quantify Home Advantage

This leads to the overall problem people analyzing home-field advantage face, especially in the sports betting industry. Not only is it hard to point to specific things fans do to help win games, but it’s also hard to quantify home-field advantage in its entirety. Overall, it might seem odd that home teams on average scored less than their opponents, but there is a lot of “noise” in that data.

The ugly truth to this is that there are some terrible NFL teams out there. Almost on the same level as NBA and MLB teams who purposely lose seasons to stock up draft picks. In 2019, while the league on average scored fewer points at home, two teams definitely ruined that average: The Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins. The Dolphins had a margin of victory average of -14.1 in 2019, while the Redskins had a -11.4 average. Just removing those two teams would increase the league average by 1.4 points.

In 2020? Denver, Detroit, and Jacksonville had a margin of victory average of -12.1, -11.5, and -12.8 respectfully. Removing those teams would increase the league scoring average by 2 points.

This shows why it is hard to use blanket averages when determining the advantage of home teams. Because even if the worst teams are thrown out, teams change so much year to year that it is hard to even use a single team’s average.

New England had a margin of victory average of 8.3 in 2019 (with Tom Brady) and a -1.6 in 2020 (without Brady). Dallas had a home average of 12.4 in 2019 (with a healthy roster) and a -4.6 in 2020 (with everyone injured).

Baltimore scored more points at home in 2020 most likely due to a weaker schedule, while Green Bay scored more points from having an MVP year from Aaron Rodgers.

More Than Just Numbers?

While we hold the “3-point home-field advantage” to be dear and true in sports betting, did 2020 show us that maybe the home-field advantage is more of a phycological one than anything?

Take the 2020 NFL playoffs for example. The Seattle Seahawks lost 30-20 at home against the Los Angeles Rams, a team they beat 20-9 just two weeks before in the regular season. The knee jerk reaction is that if Seattle had their traditional home-field advantage from their loyal fans, the Rams wouldn’t have been able to score 30 points on them.

We might never be able to quantify the impact fans could have had on that Seahawks-Rams game, just forever arguing with our buddies about the hypothetical outcome.

Looking further in the playoffs though, we can see the possible impact of no fans in the stands impacting coaching decisions, which in turn impact the outcome of games. Take the NFC Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

With 2:05 left in the game, the Packers are 4th and goal at the 8-yard line down by eight points; the Packers kicked a field goal. The Packers were going to trust their defense to stop Brady, get the ball back, and score a touchdown to win the game. This plan ultimately failed: Brady was able to run the clock out and send his team to the Super Bowl.

The logic behind the Packers’ decision is weak at best. Kicking the field goal, the Packers would be down by five points, still requiring a touchdown to win the game. If the Packers failed their conversion, they would at least force the Bucs to start their drive inside their own 10-yard line. If they got a touchdown but missed the two-point conversion, they could still force a stop and attempt a long field goal to win.

But instead, the Packers decided to kick it. If there were fans in the stands, 80,000 people yelling for the coach to go for it, would the Packers have still kicked the ball? Would the fear of being booed off the field lead the Packers to go for it, which fans always want?

When discussing the impact of home-field advantage in the future, there might be less of an argument for a statistical home-field advantage in betting lines with fans in the stands. But we aren’t talking about statistics here. It’s our gut.

Our gut is telling us that if fans were in the stands, the Packers would have gone for it instead of kicking.
And that is the impact of fans being in the stands. It’s clear COVID-19 changes the home-field advantage.