In a recent ESPN article, there was analysis of what stadiums will look like for NFL home games. Given that the NFL is not sequestering players and teams in centralized “bubbles,” nor has it outright prohibited fans from attending games, we could be looking at quite a varied game-day environment. Here is what they had to say about the Texans:
Stadium: NRG Stadium
What we know: The Texans have not announced a plan for fan attendance, but according to their team website, if there are fans at games, NRG Stadium’s capacity will be reduced to approximately 14,000 seats and the seats in the first eight rows of the lower level will not be sold. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest order allows for 50% capacity at stadiums in the state.
Some information, but a lot of unknowns. Fear and uncertainty will keep many at home. For those that go, what will the gameday experience be like? Will concessions be the same? The feel of the game? Social interaction? Given the tough economic stretch, people may not have the disposable income to spend on the surreal experience.
As for performance on the field? Anecdotal and academic accounts note the quantifiable advantage home-field presents teams. A 2014 study found that the NFL home team could expect to win at least 57% percent of the time. However, a good deal of that advantage rested on the home crowd, with its power to motivate their team and sway officiating decisions in their favor.
Will home field advantage even matter in 2020? How might J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and Justin Reid react in an empty stadium? One of the criteria in the 2014 study noted that familiarity with the stadium was an advantage (i.e. knowing the way the winds blow, how the field feels/reacts, the climate conditions, etc). That part will remain, but the rest is unknown. To watch MLB and NBA games with fans feels surreal for those used a venue with a mass of people, usually there to back the home/boo the road team (or, to boo the home team, which is shown to help motivate the home squad in this study). For the NFL, watching a game without thousands of fans is perhaps the height of weird.
Yet for all the negatives, there is perhaps an unexpected positive. A recent Wall Street Journal piece discussed a curious development with the NBA and European soccer, as they resumed their seasons without fans. During the 2019-2020 pre-COVID part of the season, European soccer saw approximately 6% of all free kicks resulted in goals. After the season resumed, teams made 10% of those kicks for goals. Some attribute this to the increased time that players could focus on their techniques, but others noted the lack of outside crowd interference as a factor.
For the NBA, while the sample size is smaller, the trend is evident in free throw-shooting and corner three-pointers. Pre-COVID, the league average for FTs was 77.6%. Since the restart in the bubble, that is up to 80.6%. For corner three-pointers, the percentages jumped from 38.9% to 42.8%. Again, there is the consideration that players had more time to focus on technique/fundamentals, but sans outside noise/crowd interference, it is easier for the players to put the practice into good use.
What does that mean for the NFL? For one, it is highly unlikely that teams would need to resort to silent counts without excessive crowd noise. Thus, false starts for road teams could significantly fall. Calling audibles should be easier for teams, with more successful offensive plays as a result. Plays inside the red zone, where crowd noise can have perhaps its greatest impact, may come down far more to the talent of players and execution of plays in a “purer form”.
One area that will be of note is the emotion of the players on the field. Many players will feed off the emotion of the crowd in a stadium. The impact to home teams is already discussed. However, many players play to the crowd, and big part of their game is celebrating great plays, amplified by the reactions of the crowd. Given the violent nature of the game, emotion plays a huge roll in players being motivated to play at higher levels. How will those celebrations and emotions go when a stadium of 70,000 is down to 7,000, 700, or 0? What will that experience feel like for the fan at home?
If there is one area that will not be different in the COVID-19 world, it is the deciding of the championship. Unlike the other major sports in America, there is no “home field” advantage in the Super Bowl. Teams expect that should they make it to the ultimate winner-take-all-game, it will be at a neutral site. While there is a full crowd, it will likely not offer a definitive advantage to one team over another. Besides, home field in winner-take-all games for championships may not be a helpful as expected. Also, do not expect a big different in kicking stats, as the NFL kicker appears less impacted by crowd noise than a soccer player or NBA free-throw taker.
All in all, the NFL, like all other sports, are entering uncharted territory in this COVID-19 world. Games will be played, or at least the league will do all it can to make it happen, given the money involved. We may have to throw out previously held conventions. Teams that can normally rely on a significant home-field advantage, especially for crowd noise support (think Seattle and Kansas City) will have to adapt to a different gameday environment. Maybe this will offer more of a “pure” game situation, where the outside factors are significantly reduced, and we get to see who the better team is in a given contest. If nothing else, it will be something truly unique, never to be replicated.
What are your thoughts? Do you have any theories on what sort of impact the absence of fans will have for the 2020 season (should COVID-19 let it happen)?