Is Lack of Crowds Diluting Home Advantage in NFL?

One would think that the sharp curtailment of fans at all NFL stadiums, and no fans at all at about half of them, due to COVID-19 is having a dramatically dissipating effect on the home-field advantage.

Well, think again.

Yes, through five weeks, home teams are just 39-36-1, pending the outcome of Tuesday night's Buffalo at Tennessee game (where Elvis will be in the building — if only as a cutout). Yet after five weeks last season, home teams were even worse: 36-42-1.

A year ago, home teams finished 133-122-1, with the fact that the 14 teams that play their home games at northern, outdoor venues were 19-3 when hosting the 18 teams that play their home games in Sun Belt locales or in domes from November 1 onward, providing the home teams' margin of victory and then some.

Another factor that has greatly helped home teams late in the season is this: From 2016 through 2019, there were 89 instances in which a team won the first meeting over a division rival on the road. Those 89 teams won 62 of the rematches at home, or 69.7% of the time. All other home teams over that same span won only 55.3% of the time.

So it would seem, no crowds, no difference for the home teams.

Different teams — or, more to the point, different states or municipalities — have been observing different policies for allowing fans to attend games; and not surprisingly in this era of red state-blue state divisiveness, the pattern closely follows partisan lines: none of the league's four West Coast teams — the Rams, Chargers, 49ers, and Seahawks — are allowing any fans in at all; neither are any fans being allowed to watch the Giants or Jets, or "New York State's only team" as the late Mario Cuomo called them, the Bills.

Chicago, another progressive stronghold, is also fan-free, as is Detroit. Municipal guidelines in Philadelphia prohibit gatherings of more than 50 people, ruling out attendance of any fans at Eagles home games — a blessing in disguise (if that phrase is not "condemned for life" due to Tony Dungy's use of it regarding Dak Prescott's injury, no doubt the most gruesome injury the sport has witnessed since the one sustained by Broncos running back Gerald Willhite in a 1987 Monday night game at Minnesota) given the way the Eagles are playing. New England's Gillette Stadium is also a no-fan zone, and the Washington Football Team, keeping with its spirit of political correctness, has already announced that fans are out for the season.

On the red side, America's Team, quite fittingly, allowed 25% attendance right off the bat, and Greg Abbott, the state's Republican governor, has already authorized an increase to 50%. As for the Lone Star State's other team, the Texans had no fans at NRG Stadium for their Week 2 loss to the Ravens, but the building was filled to about 20% capacity for their Week 4 loss to the Vikings, with further increases in the works.

All three Florida teams have already been letting fans in at 25% capacity, even though Republican governor Ron DeSantis has outdone Abbott by green-lighting full crowds at his state's stadiums. In Ohio, the Department of Health has set a limit of 12,000 for attendance at Browns and Bengals games, which will pertain for the rest of the season. The Colts are taking an incremental approach, going from 2,500 fans in Week 2 against Minnesota to 7,500 the following week against the Jets, with 12,500 planned for this Sunday's game against Cincinnati. The Titans are doing essentially the same thing, going from a fan-less home opener against Jacksonville in Week 2 to 12.5% in Monday's game against Buffalo, 15% against Houston the following week, and 21% thereafter.

In England, they have a saying: if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes. In the NFL, there should be a saying: if you don't like how well the home teams are doing, wait until November.

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