Virginia Tech economics expert Jadrian Wooten and two colleagues recently concluded research to determine whether fan restrictions during the 2020-21 basketball season impacted traditional home-court advantages often enjoyed by teams playing in home venues.
“Fans definitely matter. I think almost any sports fan is going to tell you that fans matter, especially once they go, and so what we were really curious about was how much they matter,” said Jadrian Wooten, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech’s Department of Economics, about the motivation behind researching whether COVID-19 restrictions reduced home-court advantages for college basketball teams.
Several months ago, Wooden, Emily Marshall, an associate professor of economics and data analytics at Dickinson College, and Stephen Locke, an associate professor of economics at Western Kentucky University combed through two seasons of data to determine COVID’s impact on college basketball.
Wooten said the group feels that three factors impacted home-court or home-field advantage: fans, familiarity with the venue (for example, playing baseball in Denver with its high elevation that allows balls to travel farther versus playing in Miami), and travel-related issues (for example, NBA teams playing on back-to-back nights in different cities).
According to Wooten, prior to the pandemic, separating the influences of those three was hard, though many studies have made attempts.
The pandemic offered this trio of researchers a rare opportunity to take an in-depth look at the fan aspect.
“We’ve never really had a situation where fans just completely disappear,” Wooten said. “And it
happened for almost everybody, and so this was slightly different. It took us a while to think about how to frame it because we normally think about the more fans, the better, and so we were looking at it as if you lose a lot of fans, what’s the impact?
We’re kind of doing the reverse of, if I have a lot of fans versus losing a lot of fans,” Wooten said. “It was really the first chance to isolate the fan side of it across a wide variety of teams.”
The group analyzed data from all 358 Division I teams that play college basketball. To be able to make a comparison, the group looked at game-level data from the 2019-20 season and the season right after with pandemic-induced restrictions, 2020-21. The data encompassed more than 7,300 games.
The group focused its attention on four main categories: who won or lost the game, the scoring
margin, field-goal percentage, and free-throw percentage. Typically, a team wins and shoots better both from the field and the free-throw line when playing at home.
Behind Marshall, the point guard of the research team, the group found that the home team won 63.2 percent of the time in the season before the pandemic but won only 58.9 percent of the time during the pandemic season. In the season before the pandemic, the home team won by a margin of 4.29 points per game, but that margin dropped to 3.1 points per game during the pandemic season.
From a Virginia Tech perspective, the Hokies, who opened their 2022-23 season on Nov. 7, won 16 games during the pandemic season and 15 the following season, a season in which they played fewer games. Because of that, analyzing data on individual teams was a bit tricky.
Overall, the numbers supported the group’s hypothesis that fans matter.
“That effect was even stronger in games played between two what we’re calling ‘Power 6’ teams,” Marshall said, referring to teams from the ACC, the BIG EAST, the Pac-12, the Big Ten, the SEC, and the Big 12. “Those teams are used to playing in front of more fans,” Marshall said. “So the impact of taking away fans is stronger for those teams.”
“I think the biggest surprise to me is the free-throw percentage differential,” Marshall said. “I would have expected the fans behind the baskets to be doing a little bit more.”
After Locke collected the data for analysis, Wooten and Marshall collaborated on a 33-page paper of their results. They have submitted the paper for peer review in hopes of having it published.
They admitted that they started this project because of their interests in sports and because of a fun curiosity. But their research also serves as an incentive to get students interested in economics and analytics.
–Jimmy Robertson, VT