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Referees influenced by fans, crowd size: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - With 40,000 soccer fans roaring their opinion in the stands will the referee make the right call?

World Cup 2006 Preview - Polish soccer fans shout during a match at the Legia stadium in Warsaw, in this April 22, 2006 file photo. A new Harvard study that looked at the results of over 5,000 English Premier League soccer matches found that crowd size and home field advantage influenced referee decisions. REUTERS/Katarina Stoltz

A new Harvard study that looked at the results of over 5,000 English Premier League soccer matches found that crowd size and home field advantage influenced referee decisions.

“We did a review of literature that was out before and found a lot of evidence suggesting this subconscious bias in referees driven by the fans,” said lead author Ryan Boyko, a research assistant at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

“Sports with more subjective decisions have much greater home advantage,” he said.

There’s been little scientific research examining this issue, so Boyko and his brothers Adam and Mark conducted their own study, which will appear in the Journal of Sports and Sciences.

The study looked at matches played between 1992 and 2006, officiated by 50 different referees. It found that home teams scored 1.5 goals on average and 1.1 goals while away.

The research also found that away teams were given more penalties, and that for every additional 10,000 fans in the audience, the home team was able to score 0.1 more goals.

Boyko’s interest was prompted by his own experience as a soccer referee at the college level.

“It’s very difficult to see it in yourself, but I certainly saw it at a smaller scale with young and inexperienced referees especially where coaches and fans could intimidate them,” Boyko said in an interview.

“I was able to look at myself and see when a coach and the fans are really on you, how you have to consciously zone that out.”

In the study, referees who have officiated around 200 games were found to be less biased by a large crowd than those refereeing in their first 50 games, suggesting that experience made them more resistant to fan influence.

English Premier League matches were chosen because of the large attendance and single time zone, eliminating factors like long-distance travel.

Boyko believes awareness of this phenomenon will help to eliminate bias.

Investing in technology like goal line cameras could also help remove important decisions from people who are in the thick of action, Boyko added.

He noted that referees are also assessed and suggested that assessors evaluate the game officiating without any volume. Removing spectator noise may better identify biased decisions.

Boyko hopes to extend the research to separate and examine the away team effect on the referee from the effect on players.

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