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Volume 21 No. 2
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Discord in the stands: A history lesson in home-field advantage

Following a round of public controversy — capped by provocative tweets from President Trump himself, and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s ham-handed comments equating NFL athletes to criminals — it’s clear that protests by athletes are not going away. The physical act of kneeling or raising a fist during the national anthem is now part of the repertoire of civil disobedience in American sport. Of course, the player’s intent is purposefully designed to cause discomfort and shed light on racial injustice that fans may not see or fully understand.

From the perspective of longtime season-ticket holders, fan reaction to players’ protests is having a significant impact on the crowd. Where there was once unity there is now a weird disharmony between fans. This discord in the stands may have an unintended, and even surprising, consequence — diminished home-field advantage.

Since the 1970s, academic research has indicated that professional teams long accustomed to playing for bigger, denser crowds tend to have the largest home-field advantage. Recent research by sociologist Dr. Randall Smith suggests that premise may no longer hold. In an age when players have “national publics,” the largest hometown crowds are not always united by a common purpose. Call it the “Steph Curry” effect. Crowds might increase when Curry and the Golden State Warriors come to town, but the additional fans often create disharmony and diminish a team’s home-field advantage.

The current friction is the result of a disconnect between how fans see the athletes’ protests for racial justice and may undermine home-field advantage. Before you dismiss this as academic poppycock, consider the 1948 Cleveland Indians. In 1948, the last time Cleveland won the World Series, the team squeaked into the series after winning the American League pennant by a single game. The difference between winning the World Series and being an “also ran” was their ability to undermine their opponent’s home-field advantage by promoting racial discord in the stands.

Cleveland was the first team in the American League to hire African-Americans. They had two black stars on their roster, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby. When Cleveland came to town, African-Americans fans showed up in droves to cheer on Paige and Doby. It was the same for Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Brooklyn.

In 1948 and 1949 in the National League, and in 1948 in the American League, 80 percent of the games with unusually high attendance were played against either Cleveland or Brooklyn. In those seasons, Brooklyn and Cleveland flipped the home-field advantage, gaining the 4 percent edge on the road when they played in front of large crowds.

“Pro-Cleveland” Chicagoans famously filled Comiskey Park with the White Sox in last place.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

That summer for example, the Chicago White Sox languished in last place in the American League. Nonetheless, on Aug. 13, more than 51,000 Chicagoans gathered at Comiskey Park to set a night-game attendance record. According to the Chicago Defender, an influential weekly newspaper aimed at African-American readers, in the fifth inning, the 23-year-old Doby ripped a triple, and two batters later he scored the game’s first run on a sacrifice fly and the crowd “roared with glee.” The “pro-Cleveland” Chicagoans had come to see Cleveland’s black stars play.

At that moment in American history, the discord in the stands was a product of Jim Crow segregation and the post-WWII struggle for integration, for which athletes were a symbol. The issues we face now are different. Some fans’ open hostility toward black athletes and the dissonance it sows is reflective of the divisions among Americans. What was true in 1948 remains true today: The common goal of supporting the home team has been overshadowed by racial politics.

Within the broader context, diminished home-field advantage isn’t a big deal. But, maybe, just maybe, the unsettling feeling of discord in the stands will motivate fans to address the important matters that divide us.

Heavyweight champ Joe Louis greets pitcher Satchel Paige at Comiskey Park on Aug. 13, 1948.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES

Todd Crosset is an associate professor at the McCormack department of sport management, Isenberg School, UMass Amherst. Josh Golden is an MBA student at the Isenberg School of Management and a New England Patriots season-ticket holder.