Revisiting college, pro home-field edge

By Steve Makinen  () 

At the outset of the season, most handicappers could agree on one thing — the importance of home-field advantage in college and pro football. This season is unlike any other in that fans are playing very limited roles in teams’ success. Many games are being played like glorified scrimmages with piped-in noise, or stadiums are open to extremely limited capacities, none more than about 20% of normal.

 

The lack of fans has impacted teams differently. Most of the bigger college programs and the better NFL teams are used to playing in front of huge, raucous crowds that create an overwhelming atmosphere for their opponents. Others may enjoy similar edges but on a more intimate scale. 

 

So let’s revisit the data regarding home-field advantage. Several weeks ago, I looked at only the college football figures. This time I will look at the pros as well. The college numbers have changed a lot over the last couple of months, returning to essentially normal expectations. At the same time, home-field advantage is down significantly in the NFL in the long term, but not much variation exists from the unusual data of the 2019 season.

 

2020 College Football Home-Field Advantage Study

 

So far this season, 351 games have featured an FBS team at home. After being down drastically in the first few weeks of the season, home-field advantage has essentially returned to levels comparable to recent seasons. In fact, hosts are 218-133 SU and being favored by an average of 5.6 points per game. They have also accumulated an ATS mark of 170-174 (49.4%). Seven weeks ago, when I analyzed the numbers after 60 games, I claimed it was too early to make any judgments. But after 351 games, it seems safe to say there was little reason to panic out of the gate and issue wholesale changes to the consideration you give in applying home-field points. I will be updating my numbers to return closer to normal starting this week, with the exception of some factors that I will explain.

 

Some of this shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider the entire aspect of home-field advantage. It’s not just fans or crowd size. It also entails routines, travel, familiarity and even pride in defending the host environment. 

 

Let’s take a closer look at the games played to date, analyzing performances of the home and road teams against how they were expected to perform. 

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral College Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 4.56 points, Avg. Score – Home 30.19, Road 25.68, Margin + 4.51 PPG

2018: Home favored by 4.86 points, Avg. Score – Home 30.60, Road 26.21, Margin + 4.39 PPG

2019: Home favored by 4.04 points, Avg. Score – Home 30.22, Road 25.63, Margin + 4.59 PPG

2020: Home favored by 5.64 points, Avg. Score – Home 31.21, Road 26.58, Margin + 4.63 PPG

 

Some of these data are intriguing. In 2020, home teams are actually being favored by about 1.15 points more than the three-year average. Their performance is about a point less but certainly nowhere near the level of drop-off we had witnessed in the season’s first few weeks. I will be reinstating 0.5 points of average home-field advantage across the board, with some variance based on the fans/no fans data you’ll see later. Now let’s analyze conference vs. nonconference games to see if any specific indicators might provide more insight.

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral NONCONFERENCE College Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 9.32 points, Avg. Score – Home 32.39, Road 24.11, Margin + 8.28 PPG

2018: Home favored by 10.38 points, Avg. Score – Home 34.56, Road 23.68, Margin + 10.88 PPG

2019: Home favored by 8.18 points, Avg. Score – Home 32.66, Road 23.47, Margin + 9.19 PPG

2020: Home favored by 14.7 points, Avg. Score – Home 34.05, Road 22.77, Margin + 11.28 PPG

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral CONFERENCE College Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 2.77 points, Avg. Score – Home 29.36, Road 26.27, Margin + 3.09 PPG

2018: Home favored by 2.82 points, Avg. Score – Home 29.14, Road 27.15, Margin + 1.99 PPG

2019: Home favored by 2.52 points, Avg. Score – Home 29.34, Road 26.44, Margin + 2.9 PPG

2020: Home favored by 2.85 points, Avg. Score – Home 30.34, Road 27.75, Margin + 2.59 PPG

 

When looking at these numbers, it’s obvious that home teams are badly underperforming in nonconference games, with their actual performance off about 3.4 points from expected amounts. The conference results are also down slightly for home teams, but considering they have been favored by 2.85 points and winning by 2.59, the amount is negligible and within statistical norms. Few nonconference games remain to be played, but we’ll want to keep this in mind when they are played. It seems that any unfamiliarity advantage home teams have enjoyed over nonconference opponents has been wiped out by the scrimmage-like atmospheres in games. The difference hasn’t been as big in conference games between familiar opponents.

 

The next big question is: How has the presence or absence of fans impacted results? Here is the breakdown of games by whether fans were in the stands. As it stands, 226 of 351 games (64.4%) have allowed fans. The other 125 have not. I categorized fans as any situation in which at least 7% of capacity, or 5,000, were allowed. 

 

Average Line/Score of 2020 Non-Neutral College Football Games by Fans/No Fans

 

Fans: Home favored by 8.23 points, Avg. Score – Home 32.38, Road 25.67, Margin + 6.71 PPG

Combined Records: 152-74 SU (-12.85 units), 112-108 ATS (50.9%)

 

No Fans: Home favored by 3.87 points, Avg. Score – Home 29.33, Road 27.81, Margin + 1.52 PPG

Combined Records: 66-59 SU (-24.85 units), 58-66 ATS (46.8%)

 

The results would indicate that having at least some fans in the stands is more advantageous than not. Home teams that have had fans at their games are underperforming by 1.5 ppg according to what oddsmakers have expected. Those without fans have underperformed by 2.4 ppg. Home teams playing in empty stadiums certainly seem to lack some motivation. The teams with fans are also covering the spread at a 4.1% better rate to date.

 

Now let’s look to see if the home teams are trending at all as the season wears on.

 

College Football Home Team Records by Week

Week 1 - Avg. FL: -8.7, Avg. Score: HOME 34.7 ROAD 24.7, 6-3 SU (66.7%), 5-4 ATS (55.6%)

Week 2 - Avg. FL: -18.4, Avg. Score: HOME 33.5 ROAD 19.7, 13-7 SU (65.0%), 10-10 ATS (50.0%)

Week 3 - Avg. FL: -9.3, Avg. Score: HOME 28.8 ROAD 26.2, 10-10 SU (50.0%), 4-16 ATS (20.0%)

Week 4 - Avg. FL: -5.5, Avg. Score: HOME 32.9 ROAD 28.7, 17-12 SU (58.6%), 16-11 ATS (59.3%)

Week 5 - Avg. FL: -4.9, Avg. Score: HOME 31.8 ROAD 25.2, 17-12 SU (58.6%), 15-14 ATS (51.7%)

Week 6 - Avg. FL: -5.3, Avg. Score: HOME 32.2 ROAD 28.9, 19-9 SU (67.9%), 15-13 ATS (53.6%)

Week 7 - Avg. FL: -3.8, Avg. Score: HOME 30 ROAD 29.3, 17-11 SU (60.7%), 13-13 ATS (50.0%)

Week 8 - Avg. FL: -6.8, Avg. Score: HOME 32.1 ROAD 23.9, 33-14 SU (70.2%), 25-21 ATS (54.3%)

Week 9 - Avg. FL: 1.4, Avg. Score: HOME 28.8 ROAD 29.6, 20-23 SU (46.5%), 23-20 ATS (53.5%)

Week 10 - Avg. FL: -4.8, Avg. Score: HOME 29.4 ROAD 27.1, 30-18 SU (62.5%), 20-27 ATS (42.6%)

Week 11 - Avg. FL: -6.3, Avg. Score: HOME 32.7 ROAD 26, 30-14 SU (68.2%), 20-23 ATS (46.5%)

 

It appears we might have missed the window for being able to consistently back hosts. Between Weeks 4 and 9, home teams combined for a 107-92 ATS mark, good for 53.8%. In the two weeks since, they are just 40-50 ATS (44.4%). This is something to watch closely over the next few weeks.

 

College Football Top-Performing Home Teams

This chart illustrates the home-field performance data of all 122 FBS teams that have hosted games. They are listed in order of the average number of points by which they have outperformed their expected level of play in those home games. Along with that key data, you will find their outright and ATS records plus points for and against.

 

 

One key point is that none of the top eight listed teams have played more than two games at home, so obviously that data can change quickly. Perhaps the teams to focus on most are Wake Forest, Missouri and Auburn. On the opposite side, while Michigan’s performance in its first two home games has been dreadful, the fact that teams like Southern Miss, Vanderbilt and Navy have played at least three games makes the findings more credible.

 

2020 Pro Football Home-Field Advantage Study

 

One transparent conclusion I can make from analyzing home-field data in the NFL is that indeed the advantage is down to an almost minimal point, but that it is also rebounding from an unusual 2019 season. Home-field advantage was essentially nonexistent last year, with hosts outscoring opponents by only .09 ppg when expected to win by 1.87 points. For 2020, those figures are + 0.43 and 1.45, so the level of underperforming is actually closing. Let’s dig further into the pro numbers.

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral Pro Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 2.21 points, Avg. Score – Home 23.12, Road 20.48, Margin + 2.64 PPG

2018: Home favored by 2.44 points, Avg. Score – Home 24.55, Road 22.23, Margin + 2.32 PPG

2019: Home favored by 1.87 points, Avg. Score – Home 22.92, Road 22.83, Margin + 0.09 PPG

2020: Home favored by 1.45 points, Avg. Score – Home 25.31, Road 24.88, Margin + 0.43 PPG

 

Here’s a look at the breakdown of divisional and non-divisional games to see if any specific indicators might provide us with edges.

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral NON-DIVISIONAL Pro Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 2.58 points, Avg. Score – Home 24.15, Road 20.78, Margin + 3.36 PPG

2018: Home favored by 2.59 points, Avg. Score – Home 25.47, Road 22.11, Margin + 3.36 PPG

2019: Home favored by 2.23 points, Avg. Score – Home 23.64, Road 23.04, Margin + 0.6 PPG

2020: Home favored by 1.33 points, Avg. Score – Home 24.53, Road 25.83, Margin -1.3 PPG

 

Average Line/Score of Non-Neutral DIVISIONAL Pro Football Games by Season

2017: Home favored by 1.57 points, Avg. Score – Home 21.36, Road 19.97, Margin + 1.39 PPG

2018: Home favored by 2.18 points, Avg. Score – Home 22.97, Road 22.42, Margin + 0.55 PPG

2019: Home favored by 1.23 points, Avg. Score – Home 21.61, Road 22.44, Margin -0.83 PPG

2020: Home favored by 1.67 points, Avg. Score – Home 26.73, Road 23.13, Margin + 3.6 PPG

 

When looking at these numbers, it’s obvious that over the last three seasons, familiarity with opponents has not provided much home-field advantage, as hosts in divisional games have badly underperformed compared with those in non-divisional contests. For 2020, those conclusions are exactly the opposite. As a bettor, do you consider home-field advantage a varying factor depending on the type of opponent a team is playing? These numbers suggest we should.

 

The next factor to consider is whether the presence or absence of fans has impacted results. As of now, 76 of the 146 games played so far have allowed fans. The other 70 have not. Again, though, we are dealing with limited capacities. 

 

Average Line/Score of 2020 Non-Neutral Pro Football Games by Fans/No Fans

 

Fans: Home favored by 1.94 points, Avg. Score – Home 26.6, Road 25.2, Margin + 1.4 PPG

Combined Records: 42-34 SU (-0.05 units), 35-40 ATS (46.7%)

 

No Fans: Home favored by 1.32 points, Avg. Score – Home 23.92, Road 24.53, Margin -0.61 PPG

Combined Records: 34-36 SU (-13.15 units), 34-36 ATS (48.6%)

 

As with colleges, the results indicate that having at least some fans in the stands is far more advantageous than not. Home teams that have had fans at their games are underperforming by 0.54 ppg according to what oddsmakers have expected. Those without fans have underperformed by 1.93 ppg. I will be reflecting this data in my own home-field ratings starting this week.

 

Now let’s see if the NFL home teams are trending at all as the season wears on.

 

Pro Football Home Team Records by Week

Week 1 - Avg. FL: -1, Avg. Score: HOME 25.2 ROAD 22.2, 8-8 SU (50.0%), 9-7 ATS (56.3%)

Week 2 - Avg. FL: -1.6, Avg. Score: HOME 27.9 ROAD 25.4, 11-5 SU (68.8%), 8-8 ATS (50.0%)

Week 3 - Avg. FL: -3.2, Avg. Score: HOME 25.4 ROAD 26.8, 6-9 SU (40.0%), 7-9 ATS (43.8%)

Week 4 - Avg. FL: -1.6, Avg. Score: HOME 25.8 ROAD 26.7, 6-9 SU (40.0%), 4-9 ATS (30.8%)

Week 5 - Avg. FL: -3.4, Avg. Score: HOME 26.3 ROAD 25.5, 9-5 SU (64.3%), 6-8 ATS (42.9%)

Week 6 - Avg. FL: -1, Avg. Score: HOME 24.2 ROAD 23.1, 7-7 SU (50.0%), 6-8 ATS (42.9%)

Week 7 - Avg. FL: 0, Avg. Score: HOME 23.3 ROAD 27.3, 6-8 SU (42.9%), 6-8 ATS (42.9%)

Week 8 - Avg. FL: -0.9, Avg. Score: HOME 24.6 ROAD 23, 7-7 SU (50.0%), 8-6 ATS (57.1%)

Week 9 - Avg. FL: 0.2, Avg. Score: HOME 24.8 ROAD 28.1, 5-9 SU (35.7%), 7-7 ATS (50.0%)

Week 10 - Avg. FL: -1.8, Avg. Score: HOME 25.1 ROAD 20.6, 11-3 SU (78.6%), 8-6 ATS (57.1%)

 

Quite the opposite of the college ranks, home teams seem to be gaining advantage as the season wears on. In fact, we are coming off the largest overperforming margin of the season for hosts in Week 10, when they combined to outscore opponents by 4.5 ppg when favored by only 1.8. After enduring losing ATS records for five straight weeks, NFL hosts have gone 23-19 ATS over the last three weeks.

 

Pro Football Top-Performing Home Teams

This chart illustrates the home-field performance data of all 32 NFL teams. They are listed in order of the average number of points by which they have outperformed their expected level of play in those home games. Along with that key data, you will find their outright and ATS records plus points for and against. Note the column that indicates whether the team has played in front of fans.

 

 

So Pittsburgh is the lone remaining undefeated team in the league and, not coincidentally, the best-performing home team. The Steelers are outperforming their expectations by 10.2 ppg as hosts. The next three teams are surprises, as Miami, Cincinnati and Washington have performed respectably. Only Washington hasn’t done it in front of fans. San Francisco and Dallas, two of the league’s bigger disappointments in 2020, have played worst at home. The Cowboys return home on Thanksgiving to face Washington, while the 49ers don’t play at home again until a Week 13 Monday night tilt with Buffalo.

 

At this point, I have chosen to keep my team-specific NFL Home-Field Advantage ratings down by about one point for the season overall. But after these findings, I will be varying the reductions by the fans/no fans factor.

 

To view the charts in this report, log on to “Point Spread Weekly.”

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