Ghost Games

Crowds, Referee Bias, and Home Advantage in European Football Leagues



home advantage, referee bias, covid-19, natural experiments, social pressure, video assisted referee


This paper employs multivariate regression analysis using five-years of data from the English, Spanish, Italian, and German first division football leagues which include both matches with crowds and post-COVID crowdless matches to estimate how fans influence home field advantage through referee decisions.  Consistent with previous studies, the home team gets fewer fouls, yellow cards, and red cards while getting more penalty kicks in games with crowds.  Removing the fans from the stadium eliminates these home advantages coming through referee decisions. Interestingly, removing fans reduces cards given to away teams but does not change cards given to home teams.  There is not a similar asymmetry in how fouls and penalty kicks are assigned.  We interpret these results to mean that crowds influence referee judgments about how severe an infraction is more than they influence decisions about whether an infraction occurs.  We also show that the addition of VAR had little impact on referee decisions and no effect on the home advantage in goal differential. We show that referee decisions play a relatively small role in determining home advantage in game outcomes and that most of the home advantage remains after fans are removed.

Author Biographies

Amy Wolaver, Bucknell University

Associate Professor, Department of Economics

Christopher Magee, Bucknell University

Professor, Department of Economics


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