There are two schools of thinking when it comes to the impact of fans in sports, and by-in-large, both are wrong.
“Fans” is short for fanatics (did I just blow your mind?) and, naturally, those who are the most passionate think that they are an integral part of winning and losing. They’re wrong.
Analytical observers, on the other hand, downplay the importance of cheering sections, preferring to believe that Xs and Os and Jimmys and Joes mean a lot more than drunk guys screaming really loudly. They are also wrong.
When you handicap games, fans should play a role in your assessment, but it should be a bit part, not the lead.
(As an aside, it is important to differentiate between having a home field advantage and fan support. Of course, they frequently work in tandem, but are the Seahawks 22-2 during the regular season at home over the past three years because of the environment or a good night’s sleep? Sure, those play a part. But they have a distinct advantage at home because the 12th Man makes it incredibly hard for the other team’s offense to hear each other.
Sleeping in your own bed and being able to stick to your routine do play a role, of course. Even teams that don’t draw big crowds tend to perform better at home. Over the last three years, the Philadelphia 76ers have been among the worst teams in the NBA. They have 45 wins at home and 26 on the road.)
In college football, we frequently look at bowl games and make mention that one team is playing a virtual home game or that a squad’s fans travel very well. Last season, Louisiana-Lafayette won the New Orleans Bowl, Virginia Tech won a bowl game down the road in Annapolis, Arizona State took the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Stanford blew out Maryland in Santa Clara, and USC prospered in the nearby Holiday Bowl. That being said, Hawaii is just 4-3 in bowl games played on the islands, and teams from Florida are 3-3 in the Orange Bowl since 2000.
During the ongoing NCAA Tournament, because of the pod system, top teams are rewarded for an excellent regular season by playing their first two tournament games close to home. Kentucky won twice in Louisville, Gonzaga made it safely through Seattle, and Duke blew out Robert Morris and San Diego State in Charlotte. Of course, Villanova lost in Pittsburgh, though. During the Sweet 16, Arizona was unable to use a partial crowd in LA to their advantage against Wisconsin. Again, the crowd seems to have some effect, but not a huge one.
That brings us to the Final Four, being contested this year in Indianapolis. Duke fans have the longest drive at around 600 miles from Durham to Indy; Kentucky is about 200 miles away; Spartan fans have a 250 mile trip; and Madison, Wisconsin, is about 330 miles from Lucas Oil Stadium.
All four schools are blue blood programs with big fan bases. But that doesn’t mean it will be a neutral site.
Home teams are typically given about a three-point edge in point spreads. The Final Four will have somewhere between 45,000 and 55,000 Kentucky fans in a facility that seats just north of 70,000. Not only is UK the closest of the four schools, they are playing for a historic 40-0 season, and have without question the largest fan base. When you study the Final Four, consider what effect Big Blue Nation might have.
(Photo credit: flickr user adamglanzman [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo may appear cropped.)