In 112 days the UCLA traveling roadshow of 2011-2012 will begin. Pauley Pavilion is under construction so the Bruins will play 18 "home" games in two different arenas that are a combined 60 miles from Westwood. That doesn't bode well for the kind of support and atmosphere that makes college basketball so special. That's not a criticism of the arenas that the Bruins will be playing in, the Morgan Center, the students, the alumni or the fans. It's just a reality of having to play a season on the road.
UCLA will see a definite difference in "home" games this year as opposed to those in the past. The vaunted student section? It will probably be smaller than usual and almost certainly less hostile than we've gotten used to. The arenas that the Bruins will be playing in? Both bigger than Pauley Pavilion and odds are there will be less people there. That's a lot of empty space for sound to rattle around in and then die out.
What it all comes down to is that valuable home court advantage won't be nearly as impactful as usual. The Bruins won't have the benefit of the intimidating atmosphere or the comforts of home. They may play 14 games at the Sports Arena, but will it really be home? Not so much.
The question is how much does home court advantage really matter? Is it overblown because those of us who sit in the stands want to believe we have more of an impact than we actually do? Has ESPN and their focus on student sections during games conditioned us to believe that the atmosphere really changes things? Is the home court advantage everything it is cracked up to be?
There is almost no way to exactly quantify the effects of home court advantage, but in a January 12, 2010 issue of ESPN the Magazine, they did their best to masure it. They did it for all sports, not just basketball and found that the results were almost the same across all sports.
The piece was never put online so we can't link to the full research, but the greatest point is made is that the home team doesn't necessarily play much better at home. There is a tiny difference in statistics to measure the quality of play, but nothing major. Even so, home teams win the vast majority of their games. Why is that? Because while the players don't feel the atmosphere as much, the referees most definitely do.
In every major pro sport over the past five years, home teams have benefited from a differential in calls made by the officials. Before you send irate e-mails to David Stern or Roger Goodell about zebras on the take, know this: Researchers say it’s likely that officials are subconsciously channeling fans’ preferences. "Referees get a lot of abuse, and as far as crowds are concerned, the only good decisions they make are those that help the home team," says Paul Ward, a cognitive psychologist at Florida State. "If you’re looking for a way to deal with the stress of quick decision making, favoring the home team is a way to reduce anxiety."
To test this hypothesis, Ward and his colleagues strapped a group of soccer refs, coaches and players to EKGs and asked them to call videotaped games. Half watched games with crowd noise, the other half without. The results, published in 2007, showed that the participants subjected to crowd noise reported more mental anxiety–and called 21% fewer fouls on the home team.
Bingo! This is why the intensity of crowds generates an advantage for home athletes. More fan frenzy equals more ref anxiety.
More and more evidence suggests that the referees are impacted by the crowds much more than the players, not that this is much of a surprise to those who watch sports, but having proof is nice. Those who watched the Pac-10 also know that the referees feel the crowd even more, making home court advantage in the league that much more pronounced.
So how much does home court advantage mean to UCLA? Let's take a look at last year when the Bruins went 16-2 at home, but just 5-5 on the road. The year before UCLA went 10-6 at home to just 3-7 on the road. In '08-'09 season the Bruins went 16-2 at home and 6-4 on the road. Add that up and in the last three years UCLA has a .807 winning percentage at home to just .466 on the road.
Chalk it up to whatever you'd like (the science says flimsy referees), but the numbers show a gigantic difference between home and away games. That is normally a good thing for UCLA, who always plays more home games than away games, but this season it might not go quite the same. The Sports Arena will likely be largely empty. The Honda Center might have almost as many Arizona fans as UCLA fans when the two square off there. Those referees that should bend UCLA's way probably won't.
Home court advantage? Not so much. With a thin backcourt that's not exactly great news, but as has been discussed in the past, Ben Howland used up much of his leeway two years ago with one of the worst seasons in school history. Home court advantage or not, the Bruins have to get some wins this season, but it's clear that there's a bit of an uphill battle here.