Poor FA Cup crowds erode home advantage

I was struck by the poor attendances at some of the FA Cup 3rd round matches this month. 17,632 turned up to watch Sunderland vs Burnley, less than half Sunderland’s average home gate this season. It was a similar story at Cardiff vs Fulham, Norwich vs Southampton and Hull City vs Swansea, all of which saw crowds below 50% of their league average this season.

An interesting statistic was recently posted on Twitter by Omar Chaudhuri, of 21st Club (@OmarChaudhuri). If you take all 181 FA Cup ties that involved two EPL teams (ignoring replays and matches at neutral venue) since the 2000/01 season, you find that the home team won 46% of the matches and the away team 30%. However, if you look at the equivalent league match between the teams in the same season, you find that the home team won 52% of the matches and the away team 22%. Although the sample size is small, the implication is that home advantage is less important in cup matches.

Lower FA Cup crowds and diminished home advantage - are the two connected? This seems a reasonable hypothesis, but I’ve never seen it demonstrated explicitly. I aim to do so in this post.

Cup Matches vs League Matches

To answer the question I’ll look specifically at cup ties that involved teams from the same division, from League 2 to the EPL, and compare the outcomes to the equivalent matches in the league. This approach isolates the influence of any changes in circumstance between the two games – including lower or higher attendance.

I identified every FA Cup tie, from the third round onwards, that involved two teams from the same-division since 2000/01[1], along with the corresponding league match.  I then removed all matches at a neutral venue[2]. This left me with a sample of 357 cup matches, and the same number in the league.

I then measured what I’ll refer to as the home team’s attendance ratio -- their average home-tie FA cup attendance divided by their average home league attendance -- in each of the last 16 seasons. Season-averaged attendance statistics for both league and FA cup games (3rd round onwards) for every team were taken from www.worldfootball.net. Ideally, you would directly compare the attendance of each FA Cup tie with that of the equivalent league game. However, I don’t have the data for individual games, so instead I used each team’s season averages for cup and league as a proxy (but if anyone has this data and is willing to share it, please let me know!)

I used the attendance ratio to divide my sample of matches into three sub-samples: well-attended matches, mediocre attendance and poorly-attended matches. The former are defined as cup matches in which the crowd size was greater than 90% of the home team’s league average. A mediocre attendance is defined as a crowd size less than 90% but greater than 70% of their league average, and a poorly-attended one as less than 70% their league average. For each group, we’ll look at differences in the fraction of home wins, away wins and draws between the FA Cup ties and league matches.

Table 1 summarizes the results. Let’s look at the first three lines - these give outcomes for cup ties in which the attendance was at least 90% of the league average. There have been 148 such matches in the last 16 seasons: the home team won 56%, the away team 23% and 21% were draws. In the corresponding league matches, the home team won 51%, the away team 24%, and it was a draw in 26%. So, there was a small increase in the proportion of home wins relative to the league outcomes, with correspondingly fewer draws. In about a third of these ties the attendance was greater than their league average: the home side may have benefited from a more vociferous support.

Table 1

The next set of lines in Table 1 show the results for the FA Cup matches that had a mediocre attendance – those in which the attendance ratio was between 70% and 90% of the home side league average. The home team won 44% of these matches, which is slightly below the home win rate in the corresponding league matches. There is again a fall in the number of draws, but this time the away team benefits, winning 6% more often than in the league matches. The differences are small, but there is some evidence that the away team were benefitting from the below-average attendance.

However, the increase in away wins becomes much more striking when we look at poorly-attended cup matches: those in which the attendance was less than 70% of the home team's league average. The home team won only 34% of these ties, 14% below the corresponding league fixtures. The away win percentage increases to 42% and is 19% above the league outcome. Indeed, the away team has won poorly-attended cup matches more frequently than the home team. This is despite the home team winning roughly twice as often as the away team in the corresponding league fixtures (48% to 23%). The implication is very clear: when the fans don’t show up for an FA Cup tie, the team is more likely to lose. I don’t think I’ve seen any direct evidence for this before[3].

In all three sub-samples, it's worth noting that draws are down 5% relative to the corresponding league outcomes (although the beneficiary depends on the attendance). Presumably this is down to the nature of a cup tie: teams are willing to risk pushing for a win in order to avoid having to play a troublesome replay (or a penalty shoot-out during a replay).

So why are some fans not showing up? One obvious explanation is that they are simply unwilling to shell out more money beyond the cost of a season ticket. Maybe clubs should lower their prices for FA Cup matches; I’d be curious to know if any do. There could even be an element of self-fulfilling prophecy: the fans believe that their team have no real chance of winning the cup and so choose not to attend, to the detriment of their team. Perhaps the fans are aware that the cup is simply not a priority – their club may be involved in a relegation battle, for example – and that they are likely to field a weakened team.

The bottom line seems clear enough, though: if clubs want to improve their chances of progressing in the FA Cup they should ensure that they fill their stadium.

Thanks to David Shaw, Jim Ebdon and Omar Chaudhuri for comments.

[1] Data was only available for all-Championship ties from 02/03, 08/09 for L1 and 09/10 for L2.
[2] Replays were retained, although the outcome of penalty kicks was ignored (i.e., a draw at the end of extra-time was scored as a draw). There are 64 replays in the sample in total, of which 8 went to penalties.
[3] One caveat is that the sample size is pretty small: this analysis could do with being repeated on a larger sample of games (and with the specific match attendances, rather than season averages). However, the increase in the away percentage in the smallest sample (attendance ratio < 0.7) is still highly significant. 


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