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Stuckey: Has Home-Field Advantage Disappeared in the NFL?

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Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via Getty Images. Pictured: Dalvin Cook

Coming into this unprecedented season, one of the major topics of conversation between bettors, fans and pundits was about home-field advantage and more specifically, about how much of an impact the lack of fans would have on an average NFL game.

The results have been pretty convincing through the first half of the season.

Background

Between 2002 (when the NFL expanded to 32 teams) and 2019, home teams boasted a win percentage just over 57%. However, it was widely accepted that home-field advantage was diminishing with each passing year as teams got wiser about travel and refs became less biased thanks to reviews and an increased focus on official accountability from the league.

Most professional bettors acknowledged that the old home-field advantage, which was about three points on average*, slowly headed toward two points.

*Keep in mind I’m talking average home-field advantage across the league in aggregate. Not all home-field advantages are created equal and can differ based on the situation, opponent, weather and time of year.

Recent Road Warriors

Home teams finished 130-120-1 (52%) in 2019. That is the lowest single-season win rate since 2002. A one-season sample usually carries a lot of noise, but this was the continuation of a trend, not a random outlier.

That trend has accelerated at a rapid pace in 2020.

Were over halfway through the NFL season and home teams actually have a losing record at 65-68-1 (48.9%). And after a victory by the Colts on Thursday Night Football in Tennessee, road teams have actually outscored home sides by 19 total points.

Against the Spread Trends

From the 2002 expansion season through last year, road teams covered just over 51% of the time across a sample size of over 4,000 regular season games.

As you might have guessed based on the straight-up results in 2019, road teams had their most profitable season ATS from an ROI perspective last year. Visitors finished 137-103-11 ATS (57.1%) for a splendid 10.8% ROI — covering by an average margin of approximately two points per game, per our Bet Labs database.

So, what about this season? Well, including Colts-Titans, road teams are 72-62 ATS (53.7%) for a 4.8% ROI and covering by an average of 1.55 points per contest. Not as profitable as last year so far, but still turning a healthy profit.

A few other nuggets I found interesting to highlight the lack of home-field advantage so far:

  • Road teams catching between 0-7 points are 42-22 ATS (65%) and covering by almost four points per game. From a straight-up perspective, road teams have a winning percentage of 47.6% in those games. From 2002-19, the winning percentage of road teams in this situation was almost 10 full percentage points fewer at 37.8%.
  • Home teams have historically held the upper hand on Thursday games after a short week prior to this season. Since 2003, away teams were a very poor 89-106-6 ATS (45.6%). This year, they’re 7-2 ATS and 5-4 straight up. Prior to this season, road teams had won fewer than 40% of Thursday games. It’s an absurdly small sample size but fits with everything else we’ve seen.

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Moving Forward

So, what does it all mean?

It’s a good question and I don’t know the correct answer. We are still dealing with only a 10-week sample size, so there can still be significant noise in the data.

The numbers suggest there’s no home-field advantage without fans this year, but I’m confident that’s not the case. Fans definitely play a role. They can still have influence over officials in certain situations and crowd noise can hinder offenses, particularly on third down. I don’t think it’s a coincidence we’re seeing historically low third-down defensive numbers from certain teams.

But home-field advantage still holds value for other reasons, such as familiarity with one’s own field/environment/conditions. And while teams are much smarter about travel than ever, it’s still safe to assume it has some negative impact — with the degree varying depending on each unique situation.

Personally, I started the year with the league average home-field advantage at between 1.5 and 2 points. I’ve gradually decreased it since and currently have the average home-field advantage in aggregate across the NFL at right around one point.

Maybe I’m still too high. Or maybe I’ve adjusted too much. I’ll continue to monitor each week and adjust accordingly as the sample size of data increases, but figured I’d at least share where I stand as of this moment.

It’s certainly interesting to think about the implications of such a low home-field advantage when it comes to the postseason. Maybe it might sway you to look into a longer shot in the futures market.

Either way, bring on the chaos.

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