The unexpected impact of football without crowds

The inability to fill stadia with fans has had a terrible economic impact on clubs of all sizes.  However the lack of fans may have had another effect too.  This season there is less of a divide between how the top teams are doing at, well, the top, and how the rest of the pack is faring.

Lowly placed Burnley ended Liverpool’s 68-match unbeaten home run and bottom-placed Sheffield United beat title-challenging Manchester United at Old Trafford.

These performances together with transformations like John Stones’ metamorphosis from an erratic, often-criticised performer to being arguably the best English centre-back in the league raise the question: Is the lack of a jeering opposition crowd boosting some players’ performance?

We do know, from a famous behavioural economics experiment, that the absence of a crowd means referees make better decisions.  Tobias Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim in their book Scorecasting, look at common behavioural biases that effect the outcome of sports games.

The authors prove statistically that referees make different decisions depending on the crowd.

“We’ve found is that officials are biased, confirming years of fans’ conspiracy theories.  But they’re biased not against louts screaming unprintable epithets at them.  They’re biased for them, and the bigger the crowd, the worse the bias.  In fact, officials’ bias is the most significant contributor to home field advantage.”

In the current lockdown are we seeing the effect of the missing crowds on how teams play?

What if top clubs pay big bucks to top flight players mainly because they are better at dealing with the stress of a hostile crowd or the pressure of expectations from the home crowd and not because they are actually more skilful?

It is obviously very intimidating to face a top team’s loyal fans if you are on the opposing team. Or the jeers of a misstep from your home crowd. A bit like a talented team member in the office who has to face constant banter or micro-aggressions for being different.

If you eliminate this unnecessary pressure you allow talent and skill to rise.  You enable everyone to contribute.

This is why when the workplace has a culture of belonging for everyone, not just a single cultural fit, you get better decisions, better work and better talent.

When I was interviewing people for our new book one top creative told me that for much of her career she has felt embattled: “Usually a battle against white masculine privilege.  When can I breathe out?”.

Another top ad exec told me that when they joined the industry they felt that they had gone back in time to a culture more prevalent in the last century.

We can change our sector.  We can make the workplace kinder and by doing so we will make it better.  Of course, this takes active effort, as we explain in our book Belonging, the key to transforming and maintaining diversity, inclusion and equality at work.  Active effort to antidote micro-aggressions with micro-affirmations.  And active efforts from everyone in leadership to eliminate banter and unfairness.  The new All In industry census launched by the Ad Association is crucial to building a better more inclusive workplace.

This kind of environment does not toughen people up.  It reduces the ability for people to grow their skills and talent.

Let’s take a learning from the current culture experiment on the football field and allow creativity to rise.



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