Spectators or Influencers? The Crowd Effect Upon Winning in the NFL: A Natural Experiment

Justin Ehrlich
Joel Potter
Shane Sanders
and Rodney Paul

Previous research has determined that home field advantage (HFA) is positively related to crowd density. Isolating this effect is a substantial empirical challenge as crowd density is endogenous with home win-likelihood via fan interest. We consider a natural-experimental setting that introduces exogenous crowd-density variation into National Football League (NFL) games. COVID-19 safety protocols allow us to disentangle crowd-presence, crowd-density, and built-environment effects upon HFA. We find strong evidence that crowd presence is a significant, substantial source of HFA, but crowd density is not. No-crowd games in 2020 featured no measurable HFA conditional upon team strengths, whereas partially fan-restricted games featured no significant decline in HFA relative to games without crowd restrictions (2016‒2019 and 2021). Results suggest HFA is fully attributable to crowd presence, with no evidence of stadium familiarity or travel distance effects. Betting markets efficiently predicted the partial-crowd effect from season’s outset but adjusted incrementally (behaviorally) to incorporate the true no-crowd effect only by season’s end.

DOI: http://doi.org/10.32731/IJSF/191.022024.01