“Which team’s playing at home?”
For decades, this was one of the most important considerations for sportsbooks and sports bettors alike. If there was anything that could goose a spread by a few points, it was which team didn’t have to travel to engage in competition, regardless of what that competition was.
But as oddsmakers and the bold individuals who try to outfox them have gotten more sophisticated, there’s been growing consensus that playing at home doesn’t mean what it did even five years ago, although where that home field — or court, or rink — is located can certainly be a factor.
Talk to just about any NFL bookmaker, and they’ll rattle off a short list of NFL stadiums — in cities like Green Bay, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Seattle — where the line will automatically be adjusted by at least three points in the home team’s favor, simply by virtue of where the game’s being played. Three points used to be the industry standard when most, if not all, home fields were considered to be created somewhat equal.
That benchmark, however, has been thrown into question of late.
Some stadiums ‘destinations for opposing fans’
“I think it’s easy to look at the NFL: For many years, you could always just tack on three points for home field advantage,” said Jeffrey Benson, sportsbook operations manager at Circa Sports. “Now, there are a lot of data and metrics that show that home field is deteriorating at a pretty rapid pace. Obviously, the travel and the medicine and the things that we’re doing now in the 21st century have continued to get better. Teams going cross country and being on the road for longer stretches maybe don’t matter as much as they used to.
“Home field advantage now, depending on the team or stadium, it’s probably worth somewhere in the zero to 1.5 range as opposed to the traditional 3. So definitely a stark change. As oddsmakers and bookmakers, we’ve certainly had to factor that in when we open up our numbers and think about where these games are being played.”
“Some of these stadiums are becoming destinations for opposing fans,” said John Murray, executive director of sportsbook operations for the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. “The best example to me is [SoFi Stadium] in L.A. It’s such a transient city and most of the people who live in L.A. are Raiders fans. There are just as many fans of the other team there that it’s just like a neutral field. We’re going that way in Las Vegas.
“That doesn’t mean I think there’s no such thing as home field advantage in the NFL, but it’s not like it used to be.”
"Home game" pic.twitter.com/FPrFQ9Ih0N
— Connor Sorahan (@CoachSorahan) October 5, 2021
The discussion of home field advantage’s importance reached an inflection point during COVID-restricted games, many of which were played in completely empty venues.
“There were no fans in the stands, so we had to figure out what that meant in terms of giving some advantage to the home team,” said DraftKings Sportsbook Director Johnny Avello. “The close proximity to home — being able to go to your own house, sleep in your own bed — that meant something, but nowhere near what it normally meant.”
While Peabody rejects the narrative that “home field has been basically nonexistent since the start of the 2009 season for the NFL,” he concedes that “home field has decreased across sports over time.”
“The reason home field advantage has decreased, in my opinion, comes from less officiating bias, more oversight of officials, better travel schedules, and more awareness of biological clocks,” he told US Bets. “Home field still plays an integral role, though.”
‘Really good home number compared to a decade ago’
Whatever the hometown advantage is now, Las Vegas-based sports bettor Bill Krackomberger said, “I think the bookmakers have a grasp on a really good home number compared to a decade or so ago. I am one who thinks that baseball home field doesn’t mean too much. But college basketball? I think college basketball home teams mean a lot more.”
As for his hometown NFL squad, Krackomberger said, “Home team means nothing in Vegas. Half the stadium [this past Sunday] was Eagles fans. Other warm places are destinations for road fans too. And you can’t go into Philadelphia with a Raiders jersey, but you can come to Vegas with any jersey you want and won’t get bothered. You go to an old-school joint that takes their game seriously, like Philadelphia, you’re looking for trouble.”
Krackomberger went on to razz L.A. fans for leaving Chavez Ravine before that Dodgers’ Game 3 NLCS comeback against the World Series-bound Atlanta Braves. He made a similar point about professional sports fans in the entire state of Florida, inadvertently making the case that the biggest fair-weather fans literally hail from places where the weather is fair.
“Rays games, Marlins games — they don’t care,” said Krackomberger. “Try to do that in the Bronx. Hard-working, blue-collar fans — they’re fans for life.”
— Arizona Sports Fan (@SportsAzFan) October 20, 2021
Avello and Betfred analyst Jason Sylva dispute the notion that there’s a diminished home field advantage in baseball, with the former explaining, “During the playoffs, it’s really strong. During the regular season, we certainly give it weight, but prices are always predicated on pitchers. Pitchers are most important. If you’ve got a good pitcher and a packed house, it looks like the home teams have done pretty well throughout the playoffs.”
In terms of the World Series, which gets underway in Texas Tuesday night, Avello said that while “Houston has a strong home field, Atlanta’s probably better than average, so they’re worth maybe 25 cents at home.”
Longer tailgates, longer odds
So where does playing at home still make a big difference? In the college ranks, irrespective of sport. Referring to college basketball, the SuperBook’s Murray said, “Kansas, Kentucky, [Duke’s] Cameron Indoor Stadium — the crowd gets into the game and starts to influence the officials, and we know that when we’re making the line.”
Also, said Murray, “College kids get a little scared.”
They also tend to get a little inebriated on Saturdays, which is why the time of day at which a game is played tends to influence the spreads set by both Sylva and WynnBET senior trader Motoi Pearson. In short, the longer the tailgate, the bigger the adjustment.
“If you’re playing Michigan at 5 p.m., you bump that home field advantage up,” said Pearson. “I think, personally, these prime time games, it means a little bit more. These kids, they play pretty hard and they’re playing a prime time, standalone game against a bigger opponent.”
“The later night games, they get rockin’, so the energy is crazy,” added Sylva. “Home field is definitely worth more.”
Photo: Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY