What Does Winning ' Sound'  Like? Extech Proposes Using dB Levels to Investigate Home Field Advantage

What Does Winning 'Sound' Like? Extech Proposes Using dB Levels to Investigate Home Field Advantage

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Unlike the preceding season and playoff games, the Super Bowl is set apart by the prevailing theory known as, “neutral field.” The idea is, that because the Super Bowl is hosted by a third-party’s stadium (i.e., a neutral field) it limits external factors that tend to distract the opposing team. As a company specializing in test and measurement tools and, considering this Sunday’s Super Bowl 51, Extech decided to take a look at these external factors a little more closely. Particularly, the influencing factor of sound, or decibel level (dB) generated by the home team’s fan base, which is thought to negatively impact the performance of the away team, giving the home team an advantage. This phenomenon, commonly referenced as “home field advantage,” is thought to be made irrelevant by the neutrality of the Super Bowl’s field each year. At Extech, we have technology that may potentially answer exactly what it is that makes playing at home so advantageous, and in honor of this Sunday’s game we thought it would be a perfect opportunity to propose a method of investigation by way of testing this theory with our measurement devices.

Many people assume that it is a matter of impartiality which brings the two conference championship winners to a stadium not favoring either team, but it’s actually just dumb luck that the stadium selected to host the Super Bowl in any given year is always a third-party. In fact, the NFL chooses the stadium several years in advance. Comparatively, it isn’t merely a matter of superstition which makes playing at home advantageous, but there is evidence conclusive to defining this advantage. For example, take SBNation’s findings from the 2008 to 2010 seasons, which shows us that teams in the NFL have, based on those seasons, a 6.4% greater chance of winning when playing at home. (1)

Theories for this are numerous, but one which is often asserted or implied is that the crowd, and more importantly the noise, is distracting for the visiting team who is otherwise attempting to get all their cues ironed out before a play. This phenomenon, if true, would be even more decisive in close games, because a hurry-up offense is very difficult to run when tens of thousands of people are screaming for the purpose of distraction. This explains why teams incite the crowd on defensive third downs and goal line stands, even going so far as to pump in artificial noise to the stadium. The main takeaway here is singular: noise. Noise can be measured, and measuring sound levels is right in line with what Extech does best.

Tracking sound (dB) levels in a conclusive and tangible way would then, by default, become key to testing this theory (enter Extech Sound Level Meters). Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, has the loudest crowd recorded at 142.2 dB. Before that, the Seahawks posted a 137.6 dB level crowd roar. For context, it should be noted that 112 dB is considered a risk to hearing damage with about a minute exposure, and 140 dB can cause immediate nerve damage. Perhaps bringing a dB meter to those stadiums could be a fun and presumably decisive exercise (it may save your ears, too!). While sound is a significant and clearly influential factor, and one that can be measured and therefore tested, it doesn’t have the power to singularly change the outcome of the game itself.

This year, the Seahawks lost to the Falcons in the divisional round of the playoffs. They didn’t have home field advantage and the 12th man crowd cheering them on at over 130 dB. Contrarily, the Chiefs did and lost by two just one day later to the Steelers (who then lost to the Pats in the AFC Championship in New England). Bill Belichick, who knows a thing or two about football, was asked a couple weeks ago about the advantage and he replied in his usual terse yet endearing tone, “. . . the game is won by the players on the field. That is who wins football games, the players.” I’m certainly not going to disagree with hoodie, the players are obviously the ones who win games, but the question still stands as to how significant crowd noise is. Toby Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim asked the same question in their book, Scorecasting. (2)

“When athletes are at home, they don’t seem to hit or pitch better in baseball . . . or pass better in football. The crowd doesn’t appear to be helping the home team or harming the visitors. We checked “the vicissitudes of travel” off the list. And although scheduling bias against the road team explains some of the home-field advantage, particularly in college sports, it’s irrelevant in many sports.”

Moskowitz and Wertheim conclude that the most reasonable explanation is likely to be the referees. Refereeing can, at times, invite subjectivity to the outcomes of individual plays, leading to the outcomes of drives and, ultimately, games. Furthermore, officials might feel that they are being completely impartial, but at a subconscious level there is an involuntary bias. This bias is likely reflected in their surroundings, which just so happen to be a loud, screaming crowd, ready to practically jump the officials who would dare make a bad call in favor of the visitors. It’s social pressure from that crowd, not necessarily the noise itself, which Moskowitz and Wertheim feel is the more relevant factor, but that social pressure is coming from, and related to, the cheering (or booing) crowd, nevertheless. Taking this into account, it would likely be reasonable to say that although high sound level aren't necessarily the causation behind winning or losing, there is surely a significant correlation, which often has been found in association to a game’s outcome. The louder the crowd, the more likely a referee will invite opportunity for bias in favor of those making the most ruckus.

Perhaps it is in the interest of teams, bookies, commentators and fans to apply our proposed investigative method, and explore this a little further. If it were true that sound level influences the officiating and can ultimately influence game outcomes, it should be tested. If we were to combine SBNations methodology (games that could have been won if they were all played at home) and tracked sound levels throughout each game, we would be able to make a better judgement about how influential the crowd and the sound they generate can be.

This Sunday, Feb. 5 will mark Super Bowl 51, the Falcons and the Patriots will play on the “neutral ground” of NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, where home field advantage will not be a determining factor, so who will win? Will social pressure via sound level be a relevant factor? Win or lose, your best bet of predicting the outcome in this close matchup may very well come down to one, albeit controversial factor: who will make the most noise? And if you find yourself in attendance, make sure the ref can hear you!


(1) Bois, Jon. "Home Advantage In Sports: A Scientific Study Of How Much It Affects Winning." SBNation.com. SBNation.com, 19 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.
(2) Moskowitz, Tobias J., and L. Jon. Wertheim. Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. Print.