Football Matches Have Less Conflict Without Crowds, Study Suggests

When COVID-19 forced football matches to be played without fans in attendance, it gave researchers a chance to observe the effects fans have on players' onfield behavior. Image Credit: GGGraphics/Shutterstock.com

Sporting leagues that continued to play games during the pandemic but shut the supporters out probably experienced an unexpected benefit, a study of one suggests. Players and staff were better behaved on the field without incitement from the stands. Whether a way can be found to maintain the civility once crowds return remains to be seen, but the discovery offers an opportunity for the worst offenders to shift some blame to the fans.

Like other European sporting contests, the Austrian Bundesliga initially shut down as the pandemic swept Europe, before reopening in early June. Matches over the summer were “ghost games” with fans banned to limit viral transmission.

Dr Michael Leitner of the University of Salzburg watched videos of ten ghost games played by FC Red Bull Salzburg and counted incidents of players or club staff arguing with opponents or referees. These were compared with ten games from the same part of the previous season played under normal conditions. The fact Salzburg were both 2019 and 2020 champions emphasizes that the major difference in seasons was the absence of spectators.

The authors acknowledge that a larger sample is needed to prove the effect was widespread. Nevertheless, the difference Leitner reports in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications is striking. The paper claims to be the “first of its kind” and with footage of plenty of other ghost games available, anyone who doubts the results can repeat with a larger sample.

Not only were there 19.5 percent fewer “emotional situations” without fans present, but the situations that did occur were on average shorter. In the 2018/19 season referees were involved in almost 40 percent of the events Leitner tracked, for example when players tried to argue with them. Without crowds, this fell to 25 percent of the smaller pool, no doubt making the experience of running a game much less draining. There were also slightly fewer fouls, and substantially fewer yellow and red cards awarded.

On the other hand, there was an increase in examples of good sportspersonship, such as helping up an opponent.

The reduction is particularly notable because the general stress of the pandemic has – anecdotally at least – increased the amount of verbal conflict in many other areas of life.

Prior to the league resuming, there had been widespread speculation about the effects of what one sports psychologist called a “resonance-free space”. Many anticipated the standard of play would drop, although some argued younger players might be less nervous. Others have noted a 20 percent increase in goals scored in the ghost games across the Bundesliga (Salzburg included), but whether this reflects an improvement in play is more subjective. Football, unlike sports such as running, lacks an objective measure of its standard, but Leitner realized less desirable features were more suited to numerical testing.

The work follows a worldwide football study showing a modest decline in home ground advantage in fans' absence.

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