NFL PRESEASON HANDICAPPING BASICS
PART 8: HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE IN NFL PRESEASON
The conventional wisdom, at least among the mainstream sports media and ‘recreational’ bettors is that home venue advantage is a big deal no matter the sport or situation. Some even go so far as to try to factor the team’s home and away games into their preseason futures bets. The problem is that home field advantage varies widely and in general isn’t as big of a deal as the public thinks. Not only does every sport have varying degrees of home venue significance within sports the value of playing at home varies widely from one situation to another.
In fact, understanding the nuances of home venue advantage can be a very effective way to find line value. In most cases, bookmakers use a standard home field advantage when setting a line. This is especially true in the NFL where the ‘standard’ home field advantage is 3 or 3.5 points. In the NFL preseason, the home field advantage is often the only factor in the line differing the two teams in a game. Once preseason comes around look at the betting lines particularly in the first couple of weeks. Most will be -3 or -3′.
The significance of home field advantage in preseason linesmaking is counterintuitive given the nature of the betting demographic that wagers on NFL exhibition games. On balance, the majority of the action on NFL preseason games comes from professional bettors aka ‘sharp’ players. There might be more recreational players in action during the preseason than a decade ago but that hasn’t changed the demographic makeup. Recreational players ‘get excited’ about preseason NFL rolling around but that doesn’t equate into betting action.
So why does the linesmaker emphasize home field advantage in preseason lines when most of the players betting into them have a more nuanced understanding of its true significance? Good question, but if you talk to sportsbook managers and linesmakers about the process of making preseason NFL lines they’ll tell you exactly the same thing. Not that you should always take what bookmakers say at face value, but in this case it’s easy to validate their position simply by looking at the betting lines.
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE IN PRESEASON NFL BETTING
Generally speaking, home field advantage plays little part in my regular season NFL handicapping—at least not intrinsically. There are some factors related to home field that are worth considering such as playing surface (turf or grass), wind patterns and travel. If home field advantage is of less significance than widely perceived during the regular season it’s of even less significance in the preseason.
To explain why this is the case refer back to some of the earlier sections in our discussion of preseason football. The single most important handicapping factor in preseason NFL football is each coach’s ‘goals’ or priorities for individual games. There’s little to suggest that this is influenced by the venue in most cases (we’ll talk about the exceptions momentarily). There’s also little statistical validation for the belief that a coach is more likely to want to ‘win for the home fans’. Most good coaches understand that their fanbase won’t care about what happens in August once the regular season begins.
In other words, while home field might not be completely irrelevant in the NFL preseason its very close to it. No NFL coach is going to alter the process of preparing his team to be competitive in the regular season to pander to the home fans. He’s not going to risk injury to key players—or even reserves—to get a meaningless win that will be forgotten once the regular season kicks off. Although you won’t hear them say so publicly lest they get into trouble with the NFL league office overlords there’s quite a few coaches that view the preseason games as a ‘distraction’ from the real task at hand—evaluating personnel, making sure their fluent with offensive and defensive tactics and getting them mentally and physically ready to play football.
There are a couple of situations that are tangentially related to home field advantage that are worth looking at a little more closely:
NEW HEAD COACH IN HIS FIRST HOME GAME
This is historically a very good situation to play on the home team. Every coach wants to get off to a good relationship with his team’s fanbase and winning his first preseason game is an effective way to do so. It’s a case where the fans won’t remember the win in a month but they might remember a loss. Since new coaches frequently end up with teams that won’t win many regular season games that adds even more value to getting the victory in his first game at the helm. This concept is ‘baked into the line’ now but it’s still good enough to be worth looking at.
HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT GAMES
These don’t come around often and depending on the team/coach involved they might not even be a factor. That being said, there are games of ‘historic significance’ that will sometimes have meaning attached even in the preseason. There’s one coming up in the 2016 preseason when the Rams play their first home game in Los Angeles in over twenty years. The August 13 game will be against the Dallas Cowboys and broadcast nationally on ESPN. Will this matter to Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher? Maybe—the team purged a number of assistant coaches at the end of last season and another disappointing campaign could mean Fisher is on his way out the door. Having the fans behind you means more job security for a head coach and winning a game like this doesn’t hurt.