Home-Field Advantage Definition
The home-field advantage refers to the tendency for sports performers to win more often when competing at their home facility. Studies of professional, collegiate, and high school sports have consistently found that home performers defeat visiting performers in more than half of total games played. The aggregated winning percentages of home performers vary between sports and across eras, but they typically range from just above 50% to as high as 70%. Home-field advantage effects are common in team sports like baseball, basketball, and football as well as in individual sports such as tennis and wrestling.
Although performing at home is clearly an advantage more often than not, the home-field advantage can be eliminated or reversed in some situations. Some studies suggest that competing at home can actually handicap performers during crucial, high-stakes contests. Such home-field disadvantage effects—when home performers win fewer than 50% of games—have been found in high-pressure contests such as the seventh games of World Series and National Hockey League championships and the final rounds of major golf championships.
Explanations for the Home-Field Advantage
Evidence of the home-field advantage is easily obtained by examining archival records of the outcomes of competitions, but isolating the mechanisms responsible for this phenomenon has proven more challenging to researchers. A number of variables contribute to home-field advantage effects. One factor is the extent to which the sport gives home performers an explicit strategic advantage, such as the baseball tradition of allowing home teams to bat last. In major college football, home-field advantage effects are magnified for powerhouse programs simply because they pay to fill their nonconference schedule with home games against inferior opponents with less funding. However, home-field advantage effects are also found in sports without such obvious built-in competitive advantages for home performers.
Additional explanations for the home-field advantage include factors related to performers’ comfort with their physical environment. For example, home performers are more easily able to maintain their routines of practice and rest compared with visiting performers, particularly when the visitors must travel long distances to compete. Moreover, familiarity with the unique physical characteristics of the competition venue (such as the outfield walls at Boston’s Fenway Park) could provide a competitive advantage to home performers. To date, however, research shows that the effects of performers’ comfort with the physical environment are surprisingly weak predictors of home-field advantage effects.
A potentially powerful contributor to the home-field advantage is the confidence that performing at home inspires. Performers recognize the home-field advantage and therefore expect to win more often at home and lose more often on the road. A large body of research has linked expectations of success with positive performance outcomes while linking failure expectancies with poor performance outcomes. One factor that has been found to increase the confidence of home performers is the presence of a supportive audience. Most competitors believe their home audience helps them perform better, and this mere belief may promote superior performance.
Audience factors can influence the home-field advantage in several ways. A home audience may motivate performers to invest extra effort to reward the audience for their support. In sports like football, home audiences selectively raise their noise levels to disrupt the on-field communications of the visiting team. The emotional intensity of home audiences also seems to influence decisions made by judges and referees. Several studies have shown that referee decisions tend to favor home competitors, and home-field advantage effects are most evident in sports that rely on subjective scoring by judges.
Explanations for the Home-Field Disadvantage
A notable exception to the home-field advantage has been found for crucial contests that determine championships. The home-field advantage is most apparent in relatively low-stakes contests that comprise the bulk of most sport seasons, but performing at home is often unhelpful in the pressure-packed key moments of the most meaningful games. This home-field disadvantage phenomenon is often obscured by home-field advantage effects and has received comparatively less research attention, but several psychological factors can make home performers more susceptible to choking (i.e., underachieving) under pressure.
Performers prefer to compete at home in part because they expect playing at home will help them win. In the initial stages of a competition, the superior confidence of the home performers can become self-fulfilling, propelling them to easy victories. However, if home performers have not separated themselves from their opponents by the late stages of competitions, they may struggle to remain confident (and the confidence of their opponents should increase). When this occurs, home performers may feel significant performance pressure, and the competitive advantage can shift to the visiting performers.
Performance pressure naturally increases for all competitors in key moments of big games, but home performers have more reason than other performers to feel pressure in these situations. One reason is that home performers know others expect them to defeat opponents of similar ability. Research has shown that people perform poorly when observers expect success, but the performers lack this confidence. The pressure for home performers is especially great when they recognize and care about the disappointment their failure would cause their home audience. Such elevated levels of perceived pressure often causes performers to choke by focusing too much on automatic aspects of performance they normally ignore (trying too hard), or by failing to concentrate due to heightened anxiety.
The relatively high cost of failure for home performers may also lead them to focus more on avoiding failure than striving for victory. Performers who strive to avoid failure usually fare less well than those oriented toward achieving success, so home performers are handicapped to the extent that the high costs of failing at home causes them to play not to lose. The relationship between performing at home and failure avoidance motives is supported by studies linking supportive audiences with an overcautious performance style.
- Balmer, N., Nevill, A., & Wolfson, S. (Eds.). (2005). Home advantage [Special issue]. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23(4).
- Butler, J. L., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). The trouble with friendly faces: Skilled performance with a supportive audience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 1213-1230.