L. Jon Wertheim is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who authored the novel Sportscasting:The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. The novel delves into many common sports debates that can be brought up by broadcasters or even sports junkies at the bar. Some subjects of the novel include head coaches going for it on 4th down more due to the fact that statistically it’s the right move to make, the subject of home-field advantage really being more of a myth, why officials/umpires can be biased based on home-field advantage and why some statistics such as batting average aren’t giving fans and front office executives all they need to know Wertheim teams up with Tobias J. Moskowitz for a novel that has been dubbed “Freakonomics for sports fans.” Sportscasting brings up an interesting debate about whether or not home-field advantage favors the top seeds in the NFL as we have seen more-and-more wild cards make it into the Super Bowl and conference championship games.
Wertheim has found based on research that home-field really has no advantage for the home team performance-wise, but that officiating is the most affected aspect of a game due to setting. I could tell you this. The books bring up some interesting arguments and debates I’ve had with friends who want to look at professional head coaching decisions based solely on statistics rather than the common logic that coaching has been built on decades. It’s some food for thought. L. Jon Wertheim joined KNBR with Fitz and Brooks to discuss if he anticipated officiating affecting home field advantage in his research for the book, was officiating the last statistics he looked at it or was it this “A-HA” moment, officials in sporting games conforming to just make the expected to call to stay in the norm and not have the fans boo them, how he researched that football coaches should be going for it on 4th down more often rather than punting and proving the old adage wrong that defense doesn’t exactly win championships.
Your article in Sports Illustrated peaked our curiosity in how home court advantages affects even officiating? Did you anticipate that going into researching this for the article or did you stumble upon it?
“Yeah I mean you know with a lot of these issues it was just kind of two guys talking sports. First we wanted to see does it really exist? We sort of worked on the assumption that home teams win. You look at the box scores it certainly seems that way, but sure enough you run the math, home field advantage is no myth, unquestionably it exists. It’s been consistent through time, consistent through sports. As you were saying the home win percentage in sports in the WNBA is almost exactly the same in the NBA. Japanese baseball is almost the same as MLB.
So no question it exists. The next thing we wanted to do was sort of figure out well why?
I think you talk to the guy at the bar, the two sports guys, I think there’s a general perception “Hey look you got 80,000 fans cheering for you and their booing the other guys.” And yet we sort of looked at that and tried to isolate the way athletes perform. What we found was athletes do just as well at home as on the road. They don’t shoot free throws any worse. Ironically enough quarterback ratings on the road are actually higher then they are at home. They don’t hit a baseball any differently. It didn’t really stand to reason that performance was peaking when the crowd was cheering you or dropping when the crowd was booing you. So we sort of looked and said what else could it be? We thought maybe it was travel. Teams are flying across country and coming in all jet lagged and groggy, but say when the 49ers play the Raiders, when there’s inter-league and the A’s play the Giants, the home winning percentage is no different as when the Giants go East or the football teams have to travel 3,000 miles. It didn’t really seem like distance or travel had much to do with it.
We kept going through, just sort of explanations, and nothing was really working. Then we looked at officiating and that’s when you know the numbers went crazy. It’s just in every sport it just seems like the games are called completely differently home versus road. One thing we looked at that was sort of interesting is when you had these sort of surveillance cams, when you had instant replay in the NFL the differential to bad calls was way down because you know then you could appeal it, then you could go to replay and then get overturned. In baseball, when you had this “PitchFX,” where umpires knew they were being monitored the balls and strikes went way down. There’s one season where about half the baseball teams had this “PitchFX,” and half didn’t. So when the umpires knew they were getting monitored the games were called much closer, when they weren’t being monitored there was a big advantage to the home team, so we just kind of ran the numbers and we came away absolutely convinced that home field advantage, home court advantage exists, but it’s not just guys painting their faces and cheering and there are cheerleaders courtside. It’s because the officials are calling the game differently.”
Was officiating the last statistics you researched and it kind of gave you the “A-HA!” moment or was it something you went through and it just popped out that is was the most lopsided stat that favors home-field advantage?
“Yeah I mean someone told us to look at if there was actually a study done in Italy where they found out that when in soccer when they moved the fans farther away from the field they put up this sort of moat that you see in European soccer that sort of distance the fans from the field that the red cards and yellow cards were called differently for the home team. So someone kind of tipped us off, but you know we went through the explanation first that we just sort of could come up with, jot them down, literally jotting them on the back of a napkin, you know maybe it’s scheduling that has something to do with it. We looked at climate…this sort of when the team from San Diego goes to Green Bay there’s a disadvantage we didn’t really see much there. Again we were sort of running a lot of this data simultaneously, but boy the officiating just that’s really where the red flags went up.”
I felt you did a real good job of explaining how there seems to be this conformity among officials where the expected norm is to make calls based on going along to get along with other officials to not stray away from calling objectively?
“Yeah I think that’s a really good point that I should have made too. I don’t think this is corrupt. I think Tim Donaghy is totally sort of a lone bad wolf. I don’t think any of this is intentional. I think the referees do a great job. They’re trying their hardest it’s just human nature, even at the sub-conscious level that if you blow the whistle one way and 20,000 people are going to applaud you. If you blow a whistle another way you’re going to get booed and yelled at by 20,000 people. There are all sort of physiology experiments that sort of say people will make decisions that they know are incorrect if it means being accepted by the group. I think it’s very hard to sort of weave that out.”
In terms of professional sports not changing their coaching strategies, I liked how in your book you talked about how baseball managers will bunt with non-pitchers and NFL coaches should go for it on 4th down much more than they punt, but they don’t look at percentages or the reality of it and they do what the time honored thing is to do.
How did you get into that and break that down?
“Yeah that’s something humans sort of do. The book sort of…yeah we took this “Freakonomics,” for sports approach where you sort of look at these phenomenon’s and you realize that you know that NFL coaches are behaving like you and I are when it’s time to sell our house. Sort of like the fun manager when it’s time to take stocks and basically what we found out was that a lot of time managers are making the statistically wrong choice, but the one that’s going to get them the least grief. It makes more sense to pull the goalie with three minutes than one minute statistically, but no NHL coach is going to that because they’re going to kill you on dare I say talk radio. You’re going to hear about it. Remember the Belichick [Bill] last year when he went for it against the Colts. He just got absolutely roasted. I mean every columnist and talking head killed the guy. Well it turns out statistically he made the right play. [Hosts interrupt] It’s an interesting dynamic where decisions are being made to keep your job and that are not going give your team the best chance at winning. “
Finishing off is the old adage in football is that “Defense wins championships.” The teams with the best defense win the Super Bowl all the time. Your book has something on this. Does this hold true?
“Yeah I mean that’s another thing you sort of hear it a thousand times starting in tee-ball, but you’ll hear it Super Bowl weekend too. We just sort of ran the numbers, so that was just sort of a straight easy one where you just gotta run the numbers on that and what we found was you know defense and offense are almost, it’s uncanny how similarly important they are. You need one or the other and if you have both great, but there’s very little evidence that across all sports really there’s very little evidence that defense is any more important than a good offense.”