Sports

Why Is NFL Home-Field Advantage Dying And How Can Bettors Exploit It?

Home-field advantage has never been quite as pronounced in football as it is in, say, baseball or hockey.

In those sports, there’s an actual built-in advantage in the rules of the game: The home team in baseball bats last and knows exactly how many runs it needs to score, and home ice in hockey means making the last change before every faceoff, getting to decide which lines match up. In the NFL, on paper, it’s a totally fair fight. The rules are the same for both teams.

Nevertheless, home-field advantage is historically worth three points in the NFL. That’s the way it’s always been to those in the sports betting world. Sure, you tweak it here and there, situationally. Maybe one team only gets 2½, while another gets 3½. But typically, if two teams are evenly matched, the home team starts as a 3-point favorite.

In 2019, though, home-field advantage has definitely not been worth three points. And the bettors who’ve recognized that have been able to clean up.

Home field, by the numbers

From the merger in 1970 through the 2018 NFL season, home teams won 56% of all games.

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In 2019, home teams are 117-106-1 straight up, a winning percentage of 52.47%.

Home-field advantage still exists — the number is above 50%, after all. But it’s somewhere south of half as powerful as it has typically been in the past.

And that’s demonstrated even more strongly in records against the spread.

From 1970-2018, home teams covered the spread 49.9% of the time. (How’s that for evidence of how good bookmakers are at their job over the long haul?)

This season, home teams are just 91-118-6 against the spread. They’re covering at a 43.54% clip. If you backed the road teams in every single game this season, you’d be comfortably beating the vig.

Factors diminishing home edge

Everyone has their theories as to why home-field advantage has lessened in the last few years and has been nearly erased in 2019. Here are four to consider:

  • Technology: The fact that loud “12th men” in the stands could interfere with a quarterback’s ability to hear the coach in his earpiece between plays has often been evident, and seeing road teams burn a timeout because of the crowd noise used to be somewhat commonplace. But the in-helmet technology keeps getting better, and you don’t see QBs making the “covering my helmet’s ear holes and struggling to hear my coach” face much anymore.
  • Split crowds: With more visiting-team fans at most games than used to be the case due to the ease of buying tickets on the secondary market, the crowd noise referenced above isn’t as substantial as it once was. The Los Angeles Chargers, yet to attract a home following since moving from San Diego to a city loaded with transplants, are an extreme example of playing in front of divided crowds, but the traveling fans are a reality, to some degree, at every stadium in 2019.
  • Improved travel: The days of 350-pound men squeezing into standard airplane seats are long gone. Flights are easier, teams put more effort into acclimatizing players across time zones, etc. The advantage of sleeping in your own bed over sleeping in a hotel seems to be less and less of a factor.
  • Replays to overturn calls: Is there actual referee bias in favor of the home team, influenced by the home crowd? Whatever your position on that, it’s turning into a moot point. Every scoring play and every turnover gets reviewed now, and coaches can challenge more calls and non-calls than ever. So even if an officiating crew is showing bias, the eye in the sky makes it harder for that bias to stand. 

Can a bettor benefit?

As noted above, with road teams covering more than 56% of the time this season, the opportunity to profit has been there.

Are the books adjusting? Road teams went 9-7 against the spread last week, right on pace. But that’s such a tiny sample size that it tells us nothing.

For the upcoming Week 16 games, according to Tuesday’s odds via FanDuel Sportsbook, the home teams are favored by an aggregate 30.5 points across 16 games. That works out to just a shade under two points (1.906) per game.

That information alone is meaningless, though. The home teams might just be slightly better, overall, than the road teams this week, right?

Except, according to wins and losses, they aren’t. The 16 road teams come into these Week 16 games with 113 total wins through 14 games each. The 16 home teams come in with 110 victories.

So if anything, the road teams are ever so slightly better this week. But the home teams are favored by nearly two points each.

If home-field advantage is truly dead, then there’s money to be made by exploiting the points the bookmakers are shading to the host teams.

But then again, maybe the books have adjusted, and in past years the same home teams would have been favored by an average of three points each. Can one point across each of 16 games — home teams only giving an extra two points instead of three — make all the difference? That’s the decision bettors have to make this week.

Photo by Jake Roth / USA Today Sports

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