Coronavirus Could Cost Titans -- And Everyone Else -- Homefield Advantage

David Boclair

Just when it seemed that the Tennessee Titans have started the recover the homefield advantage that was once so prominent at Nissan Stadium, they are likely to lose some – or all – of what provides that edge.

Then again, things will be no different for any other NFL franchise this fall.

The prospect of playing games with little or no fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to impact the value of playing at home. According to an report, recent studies indicate that spectators – specifically, the effect they have on officials – is perhaps the most compelling factor in homefield advantage.

Swedish economists analyzed Italian soccer, which resumed competition this summer in empty stadiums, and the early results show that the difference in high-impact calls by the referees (in this case, yellow cards, red cards and penalty kicks) that typically exists in favor of the home team effectively vanished with no fans in the stands. With it went the usual difference in win percentage for home teams.

From the report:

Why would officials call a game so differently based on the presence of a crowd? Let’s dispense with the conspiracy theories: It is not because officials are biased, much less because they are corrupt. It is because they are human. As such, they are susceptible to the powerful force that is social influence.

In short, it is human nature to conform to the thinking of a large number of people, and sporting events normally take place in front of tens of thousands, most of whom wear the same colors and have the same reaction to the officials’ decisions.

With four of the first six games this season, including all three in October, the coming campaign provides Tennessee an opportunity to get off to a fast start – under normal circumstances, at least.

Since they moved into Nissan Stadium in 1999, the Titans have gone 95-73 in home games (a 56.5 winning percentage). Eleven times in 21 seasons they went 5-3 or better, including three in a row from 2016-18. That matched a three-year run from 2007-09 for the longest in the stadium history.

Twenty-six of the league’s 32 franchises have winning home records during that same time period.

Overall, NFL home teams won fewer than 52 percent of the games in 2019 (Tennessee was 4-4). Typically, that number falls somewhere between 55 and 60 percent.

With no fans in the stands this year, that figure could drop even lower.