Yesterday, I was perusing Rob Neyer’s blog, and he did a post about a part of the new book Scorecasting. In the interview Rob linked to, Jon Wertheim discusses part of his findings on home field advantage, and how he believes they are mostly related to the subconscious desire of referees and umpires to avoid getting booed. Now, I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but thinking about the ramifications if it were true led me down a thought path that I found interesting.
Unequal officiating is inherently not fair, and on the surface is a problem we would like to see resolved. But would any of us actually enjoy baseball – or any sport, really – more if there were no home field advantage?
I went to a lot of games in Seattle when I was a kid – mostly baseball, but also some basketball and a few football games. I remember having a distinctly different level of excitement about attending a Sonics game, both because the team was good and because the home team in basketball is a huge favorite, meaning I was far more likely to go home happy. The higher prices kept NBA games from being a family staple, but if that had not been a factor, I could have easily become infatuated with hoops instead of baseball.
What is the benefit in having more equality for the road team? While some fans certainly go for the experience, many go for the chance to see their team win, and leave disappointed when that doesn’t end up as the final result. If we were able to identify and alleviate any officiating biases that caused the home team to win more regularly, wouldn’t we just be degrading the enjoyment of the product for most of the people in attendance?
Going even further, I’m now wondering if professional sports leagues shouldn’t be actively encouraging home field advantages. Uneven officiating is perhaps the worst path to this result, as it’s simply infuriating to watch your team lose to an incorrect call, but beyond that we don’t really seem all that invested in leveling the playing field for the road team. We celebrate home field winning streaks and rowdy atmospheres that create intimidation for the visitors, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest that home field advantage limits their interest in watching their team play while they’re on the road.
Historically, Major League Baseball has something like a 54/46 edge in favor of the home team. It’s significant, but not enough to tilt the expectations of the average fan all that much. Would the product be better if it was a 60/40 split? What about 70/30? There’s certainly a point of diminishing returns where additional home field advantage would lead to a decrease in interest, as the event still has to give off the air of competitiveness – the result needs to be in question to some degree for anyone to care about the game to begin with. But, the more I think about this, the more I’d imagine that point of decreasing return is probably well above where Major League Baseball currently stands.
If I’m a parent with a child or two who desperately want to see their favorite team win, I’m more likely to take them to a game where home field advantage is a pretty sizable factor. Kids in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City get to see their team lose too often on television – at least we could give them some hope when they actually go in person.
So, to you umpires who may be subconsciously favoring the home team and creating home field advantage, I say kudos, and keep up the good work.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.