The Kennel and the Myth of Home Court Advantage

“Los que no saltan son hijos de puta!” (“Those who don’t jump are bastards!”)–DC United fan chant

I will now present two recent examples of fired up home crowds and the home court/field advantages they hoped to provide.  First, last Saturday’s Auburn-Alabama football game.  In case you missed it, the Alabama home crowd was beyond fired up (naturally, of course, what with a chance to bury the title hopes of their hated archrival and its possibly cheating quarterback and all), and as Bama jumped out to an early (and easy) 24-0 lead, it had the look of a team inspired while Auburn was downright freaked.  It was a classically textbook example of a home field advantage.  Or at least it was until Auburn came back to win.  Second, last night’s Cleveland Cavaliers-Miami Heat basketball game.  In case you missed this one (and have been living in a cave for the past six months), the Cleveland home crowd was beyond fired up (naturally, of course, what with their unholy hate for all things LeBron James and the way he “spurned” them and their industrial wasteland of a snow factory and all), leading the pregame crew to liken the atmosphere to a game seven of the NBA Finals.  The crowd booed LeBron James every time he moved a muscle, and the big question was how he would respond.  No athlete has ever been as hated as LeBron is in Cleveland.  Could he handle the hate?  He’s recently been accused (mostly by revisionists) of buckling under pressure.  Could he handle this pressure?  After scoring 38 points to pace his team’s 28-point win, I think it’s safe to say that he could and he did.

The thing is, we as sports fans want to feel like we’re part of the team.  Those players down there are way stronger and faster and taller than us, but if we cheer loud enough, we can inspire them or freak out their opponents.  Thinking that we have some effect on the game’s outcome is really the only thing that keeps us from being casual observers sitting by helplessly as world-class athletes be world class.  Like a lot of other Zag fans, I’ve been anything but a casual observer.  I’ve gotten “all hoped up on beer and violence” before sardining myself into a rickety bleacher seat, then bounced and yelled like a maniac before going home with a sore throat too many times to count.  And in my entire time at Gonzaga, the Zags lost exactly two home games, so like my classmates, I figured that may efforts made a difference.  Thanks to us, the Martin Centre became The Kennel, and The Kennel became THE KENNEL.  All our yelling and red or blue or white Kennel Club shirts and jumping around to a song that scared old people added a level of gravitas to THE KENNEL that no basketball team could on its own.  Through it all, nobody really told us any different.  Not only did our Kennel Club shirt sleeves read “The 6th Man,” but Gonzaga itself used the Kennel Club in a national commercial (with actual Kennel Clubbers playing themselves) that announced “we’re all part of the same team here.” The message was, you come to Gonzaga, you join the Kennel Club, you cheer at basketball games.  (Then, of course, the basketball team wins and we have enough money to make another commercial.)  Or, more simply, you cheer, you’re part of the team.

Since I graduated, I’ve been to one game in The Kennel.  The crowd was less than inspired (actually, it was terrible), but the sample size is too small for me to make a real concrete judgment.  Any number of other people will tell you that the atmosphere in the new building is either worse or terribly worse than in the old one, but why that’s so is another story for another day.  After tomorrow’s Battle in Seattle (which will undoubtedly be played in front of a great pro-Zag crowd), though, The Great Zag Discussion will spend some time bouncing between those who hate what they think The Kennel has become and those who offer excuses.  The latter will say they are too old to cheer all game long or that the students are gone on Winter Break or this game or that one started too early or the opponent was too sucky to be exciting.  To anyone who’s ever been to a game above the little league level, those excuses are absurd (Seriously, have any of you who make those excuses ever been to another sporting event?  Even another college sporting event?  At no place other than Gonzaga do the non-students completely pass the cheering buck on to the students.  You’re allowed to stand and clap every once in a while, even if you’re old.  I promise.) yet oddly understandable.  For the better part of a decade, everyone’s told Joe Zag Fan that he helps create the greatest home court advantage in the country.  When he’s off his game (which seems to be the case more often than not), I suppose he feels like he let down the team, and needs to excuse away his guilt.  He’s like a kid who feels he disappointed his imaginary parents and their similarly imaginary expectations.  Maybe Joe ought to get his imaginary parents off his back by telling them the truth: There is no such thing as home court advantage, even in The Kennel.

As I said above, the Zags lost two games in The Kennel while I was in college.  That’s impressive, and it works really well for people who like to look at such numbers and decide that Gonzaga’s got the greatest home court advantage in the country.  Of course, during that same stretch, not a single ranked opponent came to The Kennel, and over those four seasons, the best team GU played at home was Pepperdine and the second best was either Santa Clara or a pre-Brandon Roy/Nate Robinson Washington.  Not exactly murder’s row, but it was against these teams (and some Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary’s teams that combined for under ten wins a season) that Gonzaga built its impressive home record, a record which is the foundation for Gonzaga’s home court advantage myth.  If GU hadn’t been better (and in many cases, far better) than its opponents, it would not have won those games, and if it didn’t win those games, nobody would have come to watch and cheer.  It’s a process that only ends with people watching and cheering.  Everything else has to do with the actual teams playing the actual game.

To put things into further contrast, the Zags have played at least one ranked opponent at home every season since 2005-2006 and they’ve lost at least one home game every season since then as well.  This season, GU has already played, and lost to, a ranked San Diego State in The Kennel, a result that was no more the fault of the home crowd than of the lights in the McCarthey Center.  San Diego State was better coached than Gonzaga, it played harder, and it was tougher.  It would have won the game had it been played in The Kennel or on Mars.  Saying the home crowd (or lack there of) had anything to do with it takes all the credit off the players and injects us into a place we don’t belong: on the court with actual athletes.  They’re playing the game and we aren’t.  They’re the ones practicing and being coached and responding to situations while we’re the ones getting drunk and yelling obscenities.  Looked at in those terms, how is “home court advantage” still something we talk about, let alone blindly assume exists?  These athletes are among the best in the world at what they do, and we think we can inspire them or throw them off their game by yelling at them?  Come on.  If you want to cheer, do it as loudly as you can, but do it because it’s what sports fans do and it’s fun, not because you think you’ll make a difference in the game’s outcome.  You won’t make a difference, just like Alabama fans didn’t make a difference against Cam Newton and Auburn and Cavs fans didn’t against LeBron and the Heat.  In the end, those guys and all their teammates are just way better at football and basketball than the gomers in the crowd.  If us Zag fans think we and our cheering/yelling/jumping/cursing/etc. will make a difference against anyone, from San Diego to San Diego State, we’ve got to get over ourselves because we won’t.

Go Zags.


12 Responses to “The Kennel and the Myth of Home Court Advantage”

  1. Professor Professorson Says:

    Wait…LeBron doesn’t play for Cleveland anymore? Since when?

    I generally agree with you. I’m sure that fans have managed on occasion to influence the outcome of a game, but I don’t think it happens as often as the myth of “home court advantage” would lead us to believe. I think the question now is this: WHY do fans become convinced of their own role in the success/failure (but mostly success) of their team? What is it about the psychology of fandom that makes us think we can influence the outcome of the game? Would sports still be interesting if we were able to admit to ourselves that we’re mere spectators?

  2. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    1) Why did you lock the comment section of past posts?
    2) I guess I will never attend another sporting event in person. From now on all contests will be played at a sealed court, field, dome, rink, etc without public attendence. The only information released to the public will be the score.

  3. Come on, A&T. Is the only reason you go to sporting events so you can be part of the home court/field advantage? If so, you might be better off going to tee-ball games. At least then your psych-outs would actually work.

    Professor, I think people believe they have a role in a game’s outcome because the myth has been and is perpetuated all the time. TV cameras show the crowd, commentators talk about the crowd’s effect, etc. Like with a lot of things, people just accept it and never stop to think if it’s valid. What do you think? (And, you better be careful; we’re awful close to having an intelligent discussion about sports.)

  4. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    So LaRev, why do you go to sporting events in person? You say that old people suck for not cheering, but then say cheering does nothing to improve the teams play. So why even go to watch a game in person?

  5. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    You didn’t answer my first question.

  6. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    P.S. I am not sure I agree with your possible censoring of comments before they are posted

  7. Professor Professorson Says:

    I agree that the constant mention of “home field/court advantage” in the media and elsewhere is probably a factor in the prevalence of this idea among fans. But that doesn’t really explain how the idea took hold in the first place, or why most fans seem to willing to accept it without much thought. I can only offer speculation, but here are some shots in the dark.

    First: I wonder if your suggestion that A&T take her intimidation skills down to the tee-ball field might actually be part of the answer. I learned to talk trash during games of horse with my older brother at the same time I was learning to shoot the ball like a big boy instead of granny style. My verbal abuse of my brother was the great equalizer, making up for my substandard shooting and allowing me to occasionally eke out a win. Could it be that intimidation and distraction are part of our experience of sports from the very beginning, in childhood, and without thinking about it we tend to carry that forward into our experience of sports as adults? Basketball as played in the driveway is very different from college/pro ball, but if we can develop a taste for the game in childhood that carries forward into other contexts, maybe other aspects of our early sports experiences also tend to be durable? Just a guess…

    I’d also be interested in knowing how fans elsewhere in the world understand their own role in their teams’ wins. Americans like to believe that we are totally in control of our lives–the great American myth of the self-made man. We tend to discount the role of chance in our successes and failures (this is why the rich so often believe that everything they have is a product of their own hard work, and that people who work 60 hours a week but are still poor somehow deserve to be poor). So perhaps the belief that fans routinely sway the outcome of games is a product of our emotional investment in our teams’ success coupled with a cultural unwillingness to believe that we’re powerless? Total speculation…

    Take these ideas with grain of salt…pure speculation. I don’t have any sort of authoritative answer to offer…but I’d be stunned if the question hasn’t been studied by anthropologists.

  8. Prof, I like your self-made man theory, but I’m not sure I buy it. My hunch is that European and South American Soccer fans think they have an effect on the outcome as well. I wonder if the real reason’s closer to your driveway basketball theory. A typical sports fan grew up playing sports at least once, and maybe they just can’t get over the fact that they aren’t playing any more. By thinking their cheering has an effect, they still feel like they’re playing.
    A&T, I go to sporting events because it’s fun to watch sports being played at their highest level (also the reason I don’t like watching high school sports or little league). Also, I’ll admit to liking the atmosphere, and when I cheer, I cheer because being part of that atmosphere is fun. But I still don’t think any cheering I do will help the game go one way or the other.

  9. Oh, and A&T, I used to get so many spam comments that I’d spend about 15 minutes a day getting rid of all of them. Enter the new comment approval process and the problem’s solved.

  10. “Waging the war on Intangibles, one post at a time.” I like it. But wouldn’t a more accurate title be “The Kennel and the Myth of Fan-Influenced Outcomes”? (or something like that). Home court advantage seems to me like something that is an almost universally verified phenomenon, inasmuch as virtually every team in every sport has a better to significantly better record at home. Of course, that can be chalked up to being rested and un-traveled, familiar with one’s surroundings, etc. Now, one would be tempted to assume that a rabidly supportive crowd would have some marginal effect, particularly at the non-professional level (in terms of providing extra surges of adrenaline, vitriol, pressure, etc). But since this clearly doesn’t manifest itself consistently in results, it obviously can’t be a particularly worthwhile category of analysis.

    I guess I’m perfectly willing to agree with what I take to be your primary points — that fans don’t really have much of an impact on a game, that it probably doesn’t matter much that the new Kennel is lame, and that this line of rhetoric is sustained by wishful thinking (‘maybe we’re not completely powerless!’) and shitty analysis (‘the Heat really had to come together as a team to face this Cleveland crowd’). But home court advantage seems to be a real thing.

  11. I’d be curious to see what the all-time home winning percentage is in all sports combined, but I suspect it’s around .560. This to me suggests much more of the comfort-of-being-at-home factor you brought up than it does anything else.

  12. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    I now feel better about the comment posting situation, knowing you at least have an excuse for censoring comments. I do agree with you that home field/court advantage is overrated. Just look to GU’s history of beating teams we statically had little or no advantages over and ended up beating them on their home court. However, saying that the home field/court advantage has no effect in how teams perform is taking the argument to the other extreme.

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