Home Court Advantage

HOME COURT ADVANTAGE….Matt Yglesias comments on the home court advantage in basketball:

Here in Round 2 of the NBA playoffs we’re seeing once again that home court advantage matters a lot — out of eight total games, seven have been won by the home team. Which makes me wonder — is anyone aware of any good research on what the home court advantage consists of? Why should it be so strong?

Oddly enough, I was going to post about this exact thing over the weekend, but decided not to bother because I don’t know squat about basketball and I figured this was probably well trod territory. But maybe not.

So what is the deal? It’s not just that basketball teams have a home court advantage, it’s the fact they seem to have have more of a home court advantage than other team sports like football and baseball. But why? Basketball teams don’t rely on calling audible signals, so noise shouldn’t be that big a factor, and basketball courts, especially these days, are essentially identical. If anything, then, basketball ought to offer less of a home field advantage than either of those other sports. Does waving that junk around when visiting teams shoot free throws really make that big a difference?

Apparently not. Matt’s comment thread produced two persuasive explanations. First, from a metastudy of scholarly research (!) on this very question, there’s this:

A number of studies provide strong evidence that home advantage increases with crowd size, until the crowd reaches a certain size or consistency (a more balanced number of home and away supporters), after which a peak in home advantage is observed. Two possible mechanisms were proposed to explain these observations: either (i) the crowd is able to raise the performance of the home competitors relative to the away competitors; or (ii) the crowd is able to influence the officials to subconsciously favour the home team. The literature supports the latter to be the most important and dominant explanation. [Italics mine.]

Second, maybe basketball courts aren’t as identical as I think:

Home court advantage is more pronounced in basketball for a variety of reasons, many mentioned here. First, familiarity with the court/arena cannot be underestimated. Every floor is different. Some are incredibly bouncy while others are totally dead. Some have ice below them, others don’t. Some arenas are more intimate while others are cavernous (there’s a reason the Final Four games are often poorly played in the early going. They’re playing in a football stadium which has things like draft they’re not accustomed to). The perspective of the basket is also quite different from one venue to the next. What’s behind the basket affects shooting like nothing else….Basketball, as a game of streaks, is also more heavily dependent on momentum and the proximity of the crowd helps feed that. Crowd noise and excitement can rattle even the best players and influence referees, who have a more demonstrable impact on a game’s outcome than in any other sport.

Further speculation welcome in comments.