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London and Home Field Disadvantage

The sports media is quick to cry foul any time they believe that an organization is attempting to sell merchandise or tickets at the expense of their on-field product. They have questioned the signing of Tim Tebow by the New York Jets as a possible publicity stunt, and question any time a team agrees to be featured on the HBO series "Hard Knocks". While there is no real evidence to suggest that either example may actually involve a team purposely sacrificing quality on the field to make money, both are worth questioning as they seem to have the potential for a conflict of interest. But there is one much more obvious example of this phenomenon that appears to go almost completely unnoticed year after year: the International Series game in London.

Every year, the International Series seems to pit one extremely lucky team designated as the away team against one extremely desperate or illogical team designated as the home team. This game shows no signs of the real home field advantage that is typical of NFL games. Other than the first London game, the "home" team hasn't even had the luxury of having their name painted in both end zones. The game functions as a neutral site game like the Super Bowl or a college bowl game. The fans in Wembley Stadium are mostly quiet, only occasionally cheering for either team following successful plays. As a result, referees don't feel subconscious pressure to bias their calls in favor of the home team. Any other possible sources for home field advantage are non-existent as well.

The only real significance of the home team designation is the impact it has on the rest of the schedule. Teams that play in the London game as the home team are left with a schedule featuring 7 home games, 8 away games, and 1 neutral game, while the away designated team gets 8 home games to only 7 away games.

The exact causes of home field advantage are not completely understood at this point in sports analysis, but its impact is easily accurately defined. Home field advantage in the NFL has historically been estimated as about a 3 point advantage on average. The advantage has decreased slightly in recent years due to the advent of replay challenges, and our best estimate at ProFootballLogic is currently about a 2.1 point advantage generically. This value still often rounds up to a 3 point spread in betting for games involving about equal quality teams because wins by 3 points are much more common than wins by 1 or 2 points. When equal teams play, the home team is expected to win about 58% of the time. This means every London game features a team willingly giving up their 8% advantage "hosting" a team managing to avoid their 8% disadvantage.

All this leaves us with two questions: why on earth would a team volunteer to be the home team in London? and how can I petition for my favorite team to be the away team? The answer to the first question is a lot eaiser to find than the second. Often, but not always, the designated home team for the London game is a team that usually has trouble selling out their home stadium. By agreeing to the London game, they can sell a more affordable 7 game season ticket package, and possibly avoid television blackouts. They are also able to expand their market share to the United Kingdom (assuming it more than offsets the losses from having one less home game).

Whether or not the decision makes business sense, they are doing exactly what the media loves to rip organizations for doing. They are selling out, sacrificing wins for dollars. The media should be making a bigger deal about it. And their home fans should be aggressively protesting it. The Jacksonville Jaguars recently agreed to play games in London as the home team for each of the next 4 years. This is about equivalent to having to replace an average opponent with a playoff caliber opponent on their schedule each season. With how much is made about strength of schedule every year, this is a relatively large voluntarily increase to difficulty going largely ignored.

The biggest mystery behind the NFL International Series is how away teams are selected for the game. Whatever the benefits of the game that offset the sacrifice the "home" team has made are equally available to the away team. They get increased overseas exposure plus net an extra home game. The only possible downside is the idea that teams traveling to London are more sluggish in their following game due to the trip. But these teams usually have their bye scheduled for the week following the London game, and the trip has shown no signs of ever negatively affecting any teams. Certainly even if it did, it would not be a strong enough effect to offset the home field advantage gain anyway.

The often uninformative NFL has been particularly non-forthcoming with an explanation of how teams become the away team in London. It has been vaguely suggested that one team simply volunteers for the position each year, but it makes no sense that exactly and only one team would volunteer each season. There was also talk of teams rotating such that each away team would also have to play a home game in London, but this no longer appears to be the case.

This season, the New England Patriots will become the first team to be featured for a second time as the away team in London, having yet to be stuck as the home team. Whatever the true system is, it comes as no surprise that the Patriots are at the forefront of cleverly taking advantage of it. Shady like spygate or not, they seem to be one of the only teams in the league wise enough to utilize advanced analysis to take advantage of other teams with smarter draft trades and play calling.

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