Though just about every team sport imaginable claims to have the biggest home-field advantage in sports, the cold hard facts suggest that college football is the king of the home turf wars.
The real challenge in determining which sport has the leading edge when playing at home is that, statistically speaking, we’re not always comparing apples to apples.
To illustrate, Major League Baseball was founded in 1869 and currently has 30 franchises (a number that has fluctuated over time) that play 162 games per regular season.
This means that it is hard to compare the MLB’s all-time home-field advantage—especially when you consider how attendance might ebb and flow over 75 home games—with a sport like the NFL which wasn’t founded until 1920 and is played in 32 cities over a mere 16 regular-game cycle.
Attempting to compare this to college basketball which fields 345 D-I teams or college football, which has 125 members at the FBS level, and the issue becomes even more complicated.
But, and regardless of how you slice it, college football presents its members the greatest home-field advantage in all of sports, especially over the last 10 years.
A quick look at the numbers paints a fairly clear picture in favor of the collegiate gridiron, but again, it’s key to point out that while we’re not necessarily comparing oranges to oranges, it’s difficult not to declare college football the clear winner.
As per a fascinating article on Freakonomics.com, the all-time percentage of home games won for professional sports are as follows: MLB 53.9 percent, NHL 55.7 percent, NFL 57.3 percent, NBA 60.5 percent and at the top of the heap, the MLS with 69.1 percent.
To compare these to a crowd-pleasing institutional college sport like say basketball, we turn to BoydsBets.com that has compiled home winning percentages, by conference, for the last 10,000 games.
If you average up Boyd’s results you find that college basketball owns a 62.25 percent home-court advantage over the last 10,000 games played.
In terms of how college football stacks up with these figures, as per our own calculations, the FBS ranks of college football enjoyed a 62.8 percent success rate when playing at home from 2001-11, a number that jumps up to a whopping 67.27 percent when you break this down to just the BCS teams and Notre Dame.
This means that, especially over the last decade, the only challenger to college football in terms of home-field advantage is Major League Soccer (founded in 1993), which comes in at 69.1 percent all-time.
Now that we’ve established the semi-solid fact that college football leads American team sports in terms of home-field advantage, it’s intriguing to consider why institutional gridders are generally more successful when playing on their own turf.
Crowd Noise Driven by Passionate Fans
The component of collegiate sports, especially in football and basketball, that is difficult to replicate in the pro leagues is fan passion.
Yes, there are plenty of vocal die-hard enthusiasts in the NFL, but other than that exception, it’s hard to match the crazed demeanor of the college fan.
And though this zeal can be found in some of the more successful basketball programs around the country, the place where it rears its beautiful head more often is in college football.
The truth is, many true-blue college football fans will literally spend an entire week whining and groaning after their 5-4 team loses a game to go 5-5.
It’s not like they are playing for anything other than pride and bowl eligibility, but despite what’s on the line (or what’s not on the line), for many true college football zealots every single game is a matter of life or death.
And it’s a wonderful thing.
This level of obsession translates very favorably in the stands at actual college football games and the knock-on effect, whether or not the experts agree, is that the home team has a clear advantage.
And this is especially the case in a game where two equally-matched opponents are squaring off.
Yes, when you’ve got Kentucky playing Alabama it doesn’t really matter how crazed the home fans are (whether it be UK fans or Tide fans) but when the Crimson Tide faces LSU it’s suddenly a huge deal as to where the game is being played and which fans are there pulling for the home team.
Passion equals crowd noise and crowd noise confuses opposing offenses and provides immeasurable levels of momentum to the boys gallantly clad in the home colors.
The concept of familiarity in terms of home-field advantage is actually something that is true across the board in the team sports that make up our athletic landscape.
It’s pretty logical that when an athlete gets to stay in a very agreeable, familiar atmosphere prior to game time that the said competitor would gain a sense of peace that would not be available to the traveling team.
As far as college football specifically, the idea of a familiarity advantage is amped up due to the players in question being student-athletes making staying at home intrinsically less stressful in terms of meeting various competing obligations.
Beyond that you’ve got the very real issue—and advantage for the home team—of the actual playing surface.
Whether it’s real grass turf or one of the wide-array of synthetic surfaces, college football teams have to be ready for a variety of field conditions; a variable that college basketball doesn’t necessarily have to deal with.
This becomes an even bigger deal when you throw in the fact that there are 125 uniquely different venues in the FBS, each with its own playing surface that will affect the play of the game in a slightly different way.
Territorial instinct is basically the “protect this house” mentality, which becomes an even bigger deal when you’re talking about a “house” with 70,000 screaming fans clad in the home colors.
On top of this you’ve got the idea of the college campus being its own unique hub of activity that should be defended in terms of pride against the forays of other universities, especially those in the same state or region.
This is something that simply can’t be replicated to the same degree in the pro ranks. Yes, NFL or NBA teams may want to “protect” their home cities but this is a lot less emotional when you’ve got a guy who lives in a location because he has to for work versus a guy who goes to school, once in his life, at a specific institution.
A university offers a smaller, almost bubble-like community (everyone’s close to the same age and they basically all do the same thing) and it definitely increases the chances players will feel a sense of guardianship.
In the same way that the actual playing surface can bolster home field advantage across a field of 125 teams, climate and elevation are also key elements of establishing an edge for a team playing on its native soil.
And, you could argue that these climactic components are even more beneficial to the home team.
College football is generally played outside, in the fall and winter, and it’s played from coast-to-coast including in non-pro states such as Idaho, Nebraska, Alabama and Nevada, which have a wide variety of climates.
These natural elements become part of what a visiting team has to face on the road, and when they become extreme, they are certainly an advantage to the home squad.
The recent flurry of conference realignment that sometimes make zero sense geographically, will likely increase this advantage for some teams, especially those that become far-off members of a league with a different average climate.
Another fascinating element of the piece on Freakonomics.com discussing home-field advantage is the idea of “involuntary bias” on the part of the officials.
Though the article pretty much snubs the idea that familiarity, crowd noise, etc. are key components to home turf advantage (remember it isn’t really discussing college sports), it offers up an intriguing argument regarding the behavior of referees.
The piece basically explains that the home team gets certain calls not because the officiating crew is criminally biased, but instead because they can’t help getting caught up in the home crowd’s overwhelming desire for a win.
It means that officials don’t consciously decide to give the home team an advantage—but rather, being social creatures (and human beings) like the rest of us, they assimilate the emotion of the home crowd and, once in a while, make a call that makes a whole lot of close-by, noisy people very happy.
And where more could this concept be true, in all of team sports, than in the passion-filled world of college football?