"Get loud, Wild fans!"
Have you heard that message before? I know I have. You hear it from the team's marketing department. You get that message when the occasional broadcaster/writer mentions that the Xcel Energy Center is "too quiet". Heck, you've even heard pleas for enthusiastic, pro-Wild ruckus-bringing on this website before.
The Wild, like most NHL teams, have performed much better at home than on the road throughout their existence, and sometimes impressively so. In fact, in every season but one (2010-11), the Wild have managed to win more games at home than on the road.
Also notable during that time is that the Wild have had the tendency to fill the seats for pretty much every game in existence. With the exception of Todd Richard's last year here (10-11), and the first year of Mike Yeo's tenure (11-12), the Wild have averaged a crowd above the Xcel's listed capacity.
Are these things related? Are the fans responsible for the historically good numbers the Minnesota Wild have posted at home? By holding back our cheers are we holding back our favorite players, or making them worse? To look for these answers, I reviewed the findings in a book called Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won.
When I started thinking about home-ice advantage in hockey, I didn't think that the fans had much influence on the games. I mean, yeah, if you look at last season's playoffs, Corey Crawford struggled at the X during Games 3&4 in the Wild-Blackhawks series, and that could certainly be attributed to a loud crowd rattling him. But then in Game 6, a crowd that had gotten the message to heckle Crawford loud and often was unable to thwart him. Far from shaken, he stopped 34 of 35 shots in a high-pressure 2-1 OT win.
In fact, Crawford has a .924 Save% when playing at the X in the postseason. This is higher than Crawford's career (Regular-season) Save% against the Wild (.906), his career Save% (.915), and career postseason Save% (.920). It would seem, given the sample size we have, that the crowd noise from the Minnesota Wild faithful hasn't affected Crawford all that much.
It seems counter-intuitive to just about everything that we've been led to believe about cheering and supporting your favorite squad, but the writers of Scorecasting found that there was little evidence of a crowd being capable of producing a consistent effect on athletes.
They did this by observing events that largely isolated an individual player from the influence of teammates, referees, etc. In basketball, they unearthed free-throw statistics from every single NBA game over two decades. The home team, aided by the support and cheers from the fans, were able to convert free-throws at a rate of 75.9%. But the away team, being demoralized from the jeers, the taunts, the attempts to distract them from their goals managed to convert free-throws at the exact same 75.9% rate. They found similar results in the NHL, choosing to focus on the shoot-out. In the 624 games from 05-09 where there was a shootout, the home team won only 49.4% of the time. A staggering disappearance of home-ice advantage, considering the home team in the NHL won 55.7% of it's games from 2000-09. The players at home and away are equally successful, too. The home team scored on 33.3% of their attempts, while the away team scored on 33.5%, whereas the away goalies just narrowly edge out home teams in terms of making saves, stopping 51.6% of the attempts as opposed to the 51.5% the home goalies stopped.
While not ruling out other ways a crowd can influence games, Scorecasting concludes, "If the crowd is ineffectual in these isolated situations, it is at least questionable how much of an effect it could have [on an athlete] in other situations."
Where they did find a home-field advantage, though, had a lot to do with the crowd. Basically, if you come home from the Xcel Energy Center thinking that the refs were out to get the Wild, you couldn't be more wrong. Refereeing was found to be much more biased towards the home team, across all sports, particularly in crucial situations.
Where you see this most typically in the NHL is in the amount of penalties given out by the referees. Scorecasting found that home teams in the NHL enjoy an average of around 2 and a half more minutes on the power play than their opponents, estimating that bias to account for 80% of the 0.30 difference between home and road teams in the NHL. And while objective penalties like too many men and fighting are fairly even, subjective calls like hooking, interference, etc. are clearly biased in favor of the home team.
So, what does the crowd have to do with this? It's all a matter of psychology. Being a referee in a high-stakes game with thousands of fans scrutinizing your every move is a very demanding, pressure-filled, stressful position. The noise that a crowd makes adds to that pressure, and subconsciously leads the referee to make calls that benefit the home team, either because they (subconsciously) are looking to lessen the pressure, or they're being influenced by the cues of a boisterous crowd.
How do they know this for sure? There've been studies that have examined the impact of how referees have called tight games, as opposed to lower-leverage times, and the calls are much more even when the score is close, regardless of sport. Similar results have been found suggesting larger crowds create a larger advantage for the home team. The noise alone can influence referees, too. An experiment took referees and had them watch soccer videos and make calls on them. One set were shown videos that had the home team's crowd noise, and the other group was just shown video. The refs shown the video with the crowd noise made calls favoring the home team.
Most interestingly, there were a series of 21 Italian soccer games that, thanks to security issues, were played with no fans in the stands at all. The players on both sides performed to their normal standards- shooting and passing with equal accuracy as they did with a loud crowd to cheer/demoralize them. Seemingly, no effect, ether way. But as for the referees? They ended up calling the game much less favorably towards the home team.
So, Wild fans, let those referees have it. Get in their ear, complain loudly about calls, give them hell. It works, you clearly have their ear. There's significant scientific evidence that you doing that will provide an advantage to the Wild they wouldn't have on a neutral site.
But if you think that your cheers are going to give Darcy Kuemper confidence, or that you can send a shot of adrenaline through the Wild on a day they seem sluggish, or that you can distract and frustrate Jonathan Toews into a bad night against the Wild, it would appear that's not the case. It's a fun superstition, like wearing a lucky hat, but the studies that have been done on the subject suggest it's little more than a marketing fairy tale.
Major props to Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won by Tobias H. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim for providing the backbone of this article. I've no relationship with the authors, publisher, or anyone else involved with the book, but I own it, and give it my recommendation.