The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.
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(Photo: keithallison/Flickr)

(Photo: keithallison/Flickr)

In the midst of a tumultuous 3-11 campaign, the Washington football team's loss yesterday to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium wasn’t all that noteworthy. There was the usual display of failed offensive execution, defensive ineptitude, and questionable coaching—the stuff that invariably leads to a 3-11 record. For a franchise that’s been steeped in failure for the better part of this past decade, this was just another day of the same old, nothing more.

Except, of course, for that would-be touchdown.

Leading 10-7 in the waning seconds of the first half, beloved Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III eluded several Giants defenders to dive into the end zone for a dazzling touchdown. But then, in a controversial call, the referees ruled that Griffin III had momentarily lost possession of the ball, resulting not in a touchdown, but in a turnover that gave the Giants possession of the ball and kept the score close.

An argument can be made either way for that particular hometown call. But, according to a recent study conducted some 3,000 miles away, that old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

Sacheti, Paton, and Gregory-Smith found a clear officiating bias for the home team—even by allegedly impartial referees.

Three economists—Abhinav Sacheti, University of Nottingham professor David Paton, and University of Sheffield professor Ian Gregory-Smith—oversaw a review of 1,000 professional cricket matches between 1986 and 2012 to determine whether officials more often ruled in favor of the home team. Focusing on the Leg Before Wicket (LBW) rule, which is akin to an obstruction foul on the batter, Sacheti, Paton, and Gregory-Smith found a clear officiating bias for the home team—even by allegedly impartial referees. Specifically, away teams fell victim to LBW calls between 10 and 16 percent more frequently than their hosting counterparts. For the home team, that’s a sizable advantage, with potentially game-altering consequences.

That drop to a 10 percent bias came gradually, first with the league’s 1994 mandate that one of the two umpires hail from a neutral site (prior to that, both were from the home team) and then an updated provision in 2002 that called for both umpires to be neutral.

Sure, Sacheti, Paton, and Gregory-Smith’s study deals with cricket, not American football. But people are people. In fact, a 2012 book, Scorecasting, by Toby Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim deduces a 57.3 percent home field advantage for home teams in the NFL, a good share of which they attribute to officiating. Moskowitz and Wertheim explain that refs might let the home crowd’s vigor impact their flag throwing, basically as a crowd-pleasing mechanism.

Whether that Robert Griffin III call was correct or not, it sure did seem pretty noisy at MetLife Stadium.

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