Believe it or not, NHL officials are human. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but in the end, it’s true. They respond and react to social pressures in the same manner you and I do. Years of data have proven that in a split-second moment of indecision, surroundings can and do affect personal perception, and ultimately a call on the ice.
Social researcher Tobias Moskowitz was a recent guest on TSN’s “In Depth” to discuss the affects of fans on NHL officiating, and the potential impact of officiating games without fans in attendance.
Moskowitz gave an example from the Italian soccer league from a few years back, when fans were banned from attending 21 games because of fan riots. Data showed that the home field advantage dropped by 80% in those games. In addition, researchers gathered all of the referee calls in those games and found the calls were much more even.
Former NHL official Dean Warren, who officiated more than 500 games in the league, doesn’t believe officials are biased by the crowd, and said he didn’t think fans affected calls on the ice.
Moscowitz agreed there was likely no intentional bias, but noted that subconsciously (unintentionally) human perception changes in the heat of the moment.
Betting lines in Vegas may also change. Historically Vegas odds are efficient and understand home field advantages very well. It will be interesting to see how the betting markets adjust as officiating in front of no fans is better understood.
As to be somewhat expected, research has shown that games are officiated more evenly without fans in attendance. So what does that mean for the conclusion of the 2019-2020 NHL season? Ideally, more evenly officiated games will yield truer competition, and thus a more meaningful representation of which teams are truly better at a neutral site.
However, it could be argued that more importantly, the affect of fans on teams play will have a greater impact. Some teams get more of a push from playing in front of their home fans than others teams do. The Vegas Knights are a good example of that. On the flip side, the Washington Capitals have proven to be road warriors in recent years, and thus, theoretically should be less affected by empty arenas. We will see.
By Jon Sorensen