Sports Dilemma: Be Neutral or enforce Home Advantage?

In this article, Sibin Sabu – MACE 2014 alumnus – tries to examine the debate over home advantage in sports and looks into whether it is possible to maintain neutrality without having to sacrifice home advantage.

 

Deliberate attempts by host countries to manipulate playing conditions to their advantage have been in the news recently.

In the recently concluded Ashes series, hosts England who went on to win the series, admitted to tailoring pitches to suit them. This issue was also brought to the fore in the ongoing India-South Africa series. Following the fifth ODI at Wankhede in which South Africa went on to post a mammoth total on a flat batting deck, there were responses from various quarters that home advantage must be pressed upon by preparing turning tracks.

This debate is not limited to the cricketing arena alone. Recently, in the Davis cup encounter between India and Czech Republic, India deliberately chose a venue (Delhi) where the hot and humid weather conditions would tire out the Czech players giving India greater chances of winning the tie. Matches were scheduled for noon time so that the weather conditions can have the maximum toll on the Czech players who are not used to these conditions.

There are many who feel that there is nothing wrong if the home team tries to capitalize on home conditions and doctor the playing conditions according to their strengths. An oft repeated argument is that – in sports, teams are expected to do well in all kinds of conditions, irrespective of how difficult they are, and irrespective of whether you are playing at home or away.

There are two ways of looking at this issue. One is at the macroscopic level while the other is at unit level or microscopic level.

Neutrality at Macroscopic Scale

The first approach considers that each country has the opportunity to become the home country – and hence, the inherent opportunity to exploit home conditions to suit their own strengths. Many football and cricket leagues work along this line. In this model, each team will have a home match and an away match with every other team. The biasness created in an individual tour (or game) is nullified when the team hosting the event goes for its away match.

Factors such as crowd support can also be looked at from this perspective. All host countries have the opportunity to take the benefit out of crowd support to the same extent when they play at their home. It has a strong bearing on the outcome of the match as well. Studies have shown that in football, decisions taken by referees – especially inexperienced ones – tend to favour home teams more owing to pressure from the home crowd. Home teams are more likely to win penalty kicks. To overcome this, referees can be mandated to have good experience at domestic circuits before officiating in international matches.

This model of ensuring fairness at overall level works well as long as the underlying assumption is satisfied. In bilateral tournaments, there could be an equal number of home and away matches for all the teams (or players) to ensure neutrality at a macroscopic level.

Neutrality at Microscopic Scale

The second approach looks at this debate at the unit level. It tries to examine if the visiting team has the opportunity to perform as well as the home team. That is, it looks at whether the visiting team can simulate the playing conditions (available in the host country) so that they have the opportunity to compete on an equal footing with the host team.

The ability to simulate conditions of the match can take away the host country’s advantage to a great extent. For this reason, indoor sporting events are largely immune from host country advantages.

However, there are limitations to the simulation of playing conditions – while similar pitches/ tracks can be prepared artificially, it is almost impossible to replicate the weather conditions such as temperature, humidity and wind speed. Today any advantage the host country enjoys is largely limited to its unique weather conditions and crowd support.

As the Davis Cup example cited earlier demonstrates, the venue of the competition and the time of the event are important factors that affect competitiveness in the sport. In football, playing at a high altitude has a strong negative impact on the performance of the away team. An MIT study showed that the home team which is acclimatized to the high altitude condition has a clear advantage over the visiting teams.

For example, the type of tennis court (grass court, clay court etc) is easy to simulate, but the accompanying atmospheric conditions are not. In cricket, even the simulation of pitch can be a little tricky. This is because the rate at which a pitch wears depends a lot on atmospheric conditions. Thus, simulations might prove a difficult exercise to perform in cricket.

This approach tries to ensure that a host country enjoys no benefit whatsoever. Whenever a team plays in its own backyard it is inevitable that it will enjoy some form of home advantage – either in the form of pitch, climatic conditions or crowd support. This means that having neutral venues which do not reflect any home advantage is impossible to achieve when a team plays at home.

However, neutral venues can be possible if two countries play the game in a third country based on mutual consensus. When that happens, teams will never get the opportunity to perform in front of its home crowd. That makes this approach infeasible, impractical and undesirable.

The Way to go

The ability to perform well under unfamiliar and hostile conditions should also be put under test in sports. Ensuring neutrality at a macroscopic level can be done. Attempts to do it at a unit level, for each and every match, is unrealistic as it takes the charm away from the game. Let the home team try to make the most out of its home conditions to challenge its opponents. Let the opponents do the same when they host the matches. Home is, after all, where one should feel ‘at home’.

By,
Sibin Sabu

References:

http://www.cricfit.com/we-tailored-pitches-to-suit-us-during-this-ashes-admits-james-anderson/

http://indianexpress.com/article/sports/tennis/davis-cup-india-trail-czech-republic-0-1-after-yuki-bhambri-goes-down-to-lukas-rosol-in-straight-sets/

http://economics.mit.edu/files/6572

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/6629397.stm

Moskowitz, Tobias J., and L. Jon Wertheim, “What’s Really Behind Home Field Advantage”, Sports Illustrated, 17 January 2011, pp. 65–72.

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