The All-Star Game Counts, But Do We Act Like It?

It’s the tenth anniversary of the travesty that was the 2002 MLB All-Star Game. You know, the one that ended in a 7-7 tie and led to the decision that from then on, the winning side in the game would receive home-field advantage in the World Series. Prior to 2003, the year the rule was implemented, home-field advantage alternated between the AL and NL from year to year.  It’s one of three separate but inarguably connected rule-based controversies that dog the “Midsummer Classic” year in and year out. The second being that popular fan vote decides the starting hitters for each side. The third is that all 30 teams must have at least one representative in the game.

The rules are linked because what was formerly an exhibition game meant to showcase baseball’s best and brightest (in other words, a money-making scheme) now has actual value. As such, many take issue with the game’s starters being decided based on fans clicking mouses and sticking mini pencils through holes. Equally many argue that requiring a player from each team often leaves superior players off the rosters, which detracts from the notion that the contest spotlights the game’s best.

It’s impossible to gauge the impact of playing the first and last two games of the World Series at home. In the nine years the rule has been in effect, the American League has won the All-Star Game seven times. The AL won the game every year from 2003-2009, but its representatives were only champions in four of those seven years. The rule’s effects were minimal, if it had any, as the World Series never saw a seventh game. But in the past two years, the National League has had home-field. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants quickly won their first two home games, and had the Rangers playing scared en route to a 4-1 series victory. Last year was the first time the Series went seven, and the St. Louis Cardinals won the game, and the series, at home.

Even if it is impossible to truly gauge the effects, if you’re a fan of a contending AL team, does it sit right with you that Billy Butler might be in a position to decide if your team gets home-field advantage with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth? Or if your team’s in the NL, that Huston Street (who has only pitched 21 innings this season) might have to get that final out? Those are just some examples of the possibilities of the “one from each team” rule. Let’s take a look at who the fans chose, and decide whether they deserve to be starting, or in some cases, even playing.

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Digging into home field advantage

In the Jan. 12 issue of ESPN the Magazine, Peter Keating breaks down a number of different reasons why teams enjoy an advantage at home. The entire article is worth a read (though you’ll have to buy a copy since the article isn’t available online), but the part that jumped out at me was a study that was done on soccer officials back in 2007.

In every major pro sport over the past five years, home teams have benefited from a differential in calls made by the officials. Before you send irate e-mails to David Stern or Roger Goodell about zebras on the take, know this: Researchers say it’s likely that officials are subconsciously channeling fans’ preferences. “Referees get a lot of abuse, and as far as crowds are concerned, the only good decisions they make are those that help the home team,” says Paul Ward, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State. “If you’re looking for a way to deal with the stress of quick decisionmaking, favoring the home team is a way to reduce anxiety”

To test this hypothesis, Ward and his colleagues strapped a group of soccer refs, coaches and players to EKGs and asked them to call videotaped games. Half watched games with crowd noise, the other half without. The results, published in 2007, showed that the participants subjected to crowd noise reported more mental anxiety–and called 21% fewer fouls on the home team.

Bingo! This is why the intensity of crowds generates an advantage for home athletes. More fan frenzy equals more ref anxiety.

It makes sense that if an official is calling a game in front of a packed house of 20,000 screaming fans, that it’s not unlikely that the ref will eventually bend to the fans’ will. They may have every good intention of calling the game right down the line, but it’s human nature to try to reduce your own stress, and the easiest way to do that is to make the people around you happy.

So if you’re ever at a game and wondering if it’s worth the effort to stand up and cheer (or boo your fool head off), now you have your answer.

Which sport has the biggest home field advantage?

So I was sitting at my favorite sports bar (Rudy’s in Newport Beach), knocking down a pitcher or two with some teammates after a big rec league basketball win, and the subject of home court advantage came up. Each guy had his own take on what sport gave the home team the biggest advantage, and like most of these “sports bar” conversations, an idea for a column popped into my head. Why not take a look at each of the four “major” sports (NFL, NBA, MLB and the NHL) and see which one has the biggest home field/court/ice advantage?

I wanted a decent sample size, but I also wanted the data to be relatively current, so I compiled the home wins and losses over the last three regular seasons for each league. (By the way, on the whole, Yahoo! Sports seems to have the best home/away “split” data, though for some reason its NHL data is incomplete. Luckily, had what I needed.)

Here’s a summary of the W/L data:

The NFL, NHL and MLB are all very close (within a 1.7% range), while the NBA has by far the biggest home court win percentage with a stellar 59.8%. Why is this?

The first thing that jumps to mind is the proximity of the fans. NFL, NHL and MLB are separated from the action by one thing or another, whether it’s distance in football and baseball or the protective glass in hockey. NBA fans are basically right on the court and are therefore more able (though not always willing) to change the course of a game. They can do it three different ways:

1. NBA officials sometimes get caught up in the emotion of a lively home crowd.
Due to the high number of possessions in basketball, officials are forced to make more decisions than any other sport, and are therefore more able to change the game’s outcome. (Just ask Tim Donaghy.) So NBA crowds can directly impact the outcome of a game.

2. The proximity of the fans makes their reaction to non-calls more immediate.
It seems like there are more “late whistles” during the course of a NBA game than there are “late flags” in the NFL. Since the fans are sitting closer, their negative reaction to a no-call gets to the official more quickly, which makes it more likely that the official will reconsider and blow his whistle.

3. The proximity of the fans can affect the opposing players.

As a former collegiate basketball player myself, most guys do a pretty good job of blocking that stuff out. Still, when you’re talking about taking a game-winning shot, there is probably more in-your-face noise and distraction for a basketball player than there is for any other sport.

Travel also has a big impact on the NBA. In baseball, teams generally stay in a city for a two- to four-game series, while NBA teams are hitting a different city every (or every other) night. This doesn’t explain the difference between the NHL and NBA; both leagues play 82 games and have somewhat similar travel schedules.

Monotony may also play a factor. While the NBA and NHL regular seasons are kind of a drag, every game in the NFL season holds significant importance. In football, the season is shorter, so there is more riding on each game, especially because the playoffs are less inclusive (than the NBA and NHL).

The baseball season is certainly monotonous, so why don’t road teams lose focus? Well, the baseball season can certainly be a drag, but it’s more about the length and the sheer number of games. The stakes are raised over the second half of the season as there are only eight playoff spots up for grabs. Plus, much of the competitiveness of baseball rides on the pitchers, who usually get several days between starts and are therefore focused when they do pitch. Throw in the lack of parity in baseball and you have a lot of good clubs that can go win some games on the road.

Also, there just aren’t as many “key moments” in baseball. In football or basketball, the crowd is going to get loud for each third down, free throw or when the home team goes on a scoring run. Other than the occasional big at-bat, baseball crowds are usually pretty quiet. The more laid back the crowd, the less impact it’s going to have on the game.

All right, enough about win percentage. The other factor I wanted to look at was point differential. Here’s the breakdown:

From a points per game perspective, NFL home teams have the biggest advantage. It works out to almost a 6% increase for the home team in terms of advantage in relation to total points per game. It’s unclear why this doesn’t translate to a bigger home win percentage, but the NFL is second in that category, so maybe it has more to do with the characteristics of the NBA than it does with the NFL.

Regarding the NBA’s last place finish in this category, it sort of goes with the league’s reputation. They say that you don’t have to watch the first three quarters of a NBA game, because it will probably be close at some point in the fourth quarter. Momentum swings wildly in basketball, more wildly than in any other sport, and if a team gets complacent, its opponent will probably go on a run. So while a 3.25-point advantage is significant, it doesn’t seem like a lot given the total number of points scored per game. But it is.

The more I dig into this, the more I want to see how home field/court/ice advantage translates to the playoffs. It seems like focus and travel issues would be eliminated, and we might get a clearer picture of which sport has the biggest home field advantage.

But that’s another column for another time.

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