Basketball / There's no place like home court
Is the statistically-proven home court advantage a factor of the cheering support of the hometown crowd, or is it just the referees?
The oft-stated home field or home court advantage in sports is a statistically proven fact. What's less certain and open to speculation are the reasons. Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim address this and other issues of the psychological influence on how games are played in the recently published book "Scorecasting."
The common conception is that the cheers and support of the hometown crowd raise the team's effort level and adrenaline. Moskowitz, a professor of behavioral economics at the University of Chicago, and Wertheim, a noted writer for Sports Illustrated, beg to differ. They lay the responsibility directly in the hands of the referees.
Research has found that the home team wins more often in every major sport - and the home field advantage is most pronounced in basketball.
Apparently, the noise intensity in these closed settings, as well as the crowd's proximity to the action, has a noticeable effect. What's open to conjecture is who is being affected here: the home team, the visitors, the officials, or all of the above?
Moskowitz and Wertheim based their assumption about basketball referees on findings such as free throw percentages remaining constant on the road and at home, as compared to a 15 percent higher likelihood for traveling violations to be called against the visiting team.
The authors claim that officials subconsciously conform to their emotional environment and, like anyone else, like to have their judgments confirmed.
Haaretz English Edition spoke with several Israeli Super League basketball officials to hear their opinions on the matter.
Todd Warnick, a retired veteran who spent 31 years officiating in Israel and has over 20 years of international experience, says "good referees succeed in blocking out the crowd noise." According to Warnick, "a referee whose techniques are fundamentally sound will usually react to situations in a similar way wherever they are officiating."
During the past two years, Warnick has been training and supervising referees for the Super League, which has included work on positioning and reviewing game tapes.
"We are starting to see some of the fruits of our labor and our officials are calling games in a more consistent fashion," he says.
Elad Ashkenazi, who recently left the profession after over a decade as a Super League official, claims that crowd noise is a bigger issue in youth league games where fans are sometimes practically sitting on the court. This can work either way, cites Ashkenazi.
"Sometimes officials will overcompensate, just to show they are in control and not overly partial to the home team," he explains.
Ashkenazi also mentions the Machiavellian politics of the local league as one of the big influences on how games are called, and how the shadow cast by powerful figures in the league's administration can subconsciously impact decision making.
This writer did a survey 15 years ago of the home court advantage in the NBA playoffs and found it to be less of a factor in the semifinal and final rounds. At the time, I postulated that the best teams were also those proficient at winning on the road. The explanation according to Moskowitz and Wertheim's theory would be that the best refs also call the finals.
Whatever the reason, the only thing that's clear is that in basketball, there's no place like home.