Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski wanted fans to be in their seats by kickoff for Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans. “You make a difference, and I really believe that,” Stefanski said Friday. “Home-field advantage in the NFL is just such a big deal.”
But is home-field advantage really a big deal?
Players and coaches would say yes. The endless cliches we hear in interviews almost always mention something about the fans. How the fans gave the team energy. How players are out there for the fans. How the crowd really helped through some adversity.
While NFL players aren’t quite as mechanical as NASCAR drivers rattling off sponsors, the fans get a positive mention from the home team and even sometimes from the road team. Home-field advantage seems to matter because the players and coaches say it matters.
We’re not between the lines on Sundays. We’re in the book, on the couch, on the go or simply somewhere else watching the game as opposed to playing in it. It has been standard operating procedure to just slap three points on the home team when making numbers and call it a day.
Recently, that has changed. Results-driven analysis has shown that home-field advantage has been steadily dwindling. To some degree, one could say home-field advantage no longer exists in today’s NFL.
Remember when teams traveling west to east was a big deal? The Rams and Chargers of the world heading to take on the Giants and Dolphins of the world? Well, per a tweet Monday from our own Jonathan Von Tobel, West Coast teams playing in the Eastern time zone are 73-58 SU and 73-53-3 ATS since the start of the 2013 season. Those teams went 3-0 SU and 2-1 ATS in Week 2.
The Chargers also went east and covered with an outright win over Washington in Week 1.
Going west to east has always been thought of as the hardest from a travel standpoint because of the early kickoff and the loss of time. Teams going east to west get three hours on the body clock, and it just feels like a 4 p.m. ET game for them, which happens as part of the regular schedule anyway.
Home regular-season favorites since 2018 are covering at just 43.5 percent, including just a 5-13 ATS mark this season, per BetLabs. You can’t just blame COVID-19 with limited or no attendance, as home favorites were 72-84-7 ATS during the 2018 season and 58-86-9 ATS during the 2019 season.
Maybe home-field advantage comes into play in games with close spreads? Say, games when the favorite is laying a short number under a touchdown? The crowd can be the deciding factor in those games, right?
Since the 2018 season, home favorites of six or fewer points are 117-158-9. That means road underdogs are covering 57.5 percent of the time in that span with a line under a touchdown, per BetLabs.
The 2020 season was unique with COVID-19 and limited or no fans, which would be the potential bump in the road for this data set. But travel was uncomfortable, and being on the road was seemingly tougher than being at home with the strict protocols and restrictions to limit exposure in those settings.
Potential explanations are plentiful. Travel is easier than ever. Much more emphasis is placed on player health, wellness and nutrition, which includes optimized travel schedules for sleep, fatigue, jet lag and the like. Teams even employ sleep therapists or have commissioned studies from colleges, universities and medical professionals to find the best time to leave for road games and the best way to prepare players for time changes. That includes the best practices for getting players accustomed to environments and weather conditions.
Players have been exposed to traveling for games at younger ages. That happens at the high school level now with showcase games on major TV networks. Those traveling schedules sometimes mirror a college football team more than a high school team. Those athletes get to college or the NFL fully aware of the planning and preparation it takes to consistently be on the move.
Most teams used to do things the same way. That isn’t the case anymore. All teams have itineraries that work for them. Teams don’t automatically leave Friday night for a Sunday game. Coaches have a better idea of when to push players in practice and when to back off in advance of a road game.
Home-field advantage may still exist in some capacity, but it seems to be nowhere near the three points it has traditionally been worth. Home-field edge should be adjusted in other sports as well, but the NFL is the one in which we have seen the most evidence that it has not been nearly as much of a benefit to the home team.