Sports

It’s hard to build home-field advantage in the NFL. Can the Commanders do it?

In his first five months of ownership, Washington Commanders managing partner Josh Harris has avoided indicating a preference for the location of the team’s next stadium and instead focused on what seems like a simple goal.

“We would love to have a stadium where the opposing players fear to come, and our fans … and our players love to come and feel welcomed,” he said in late July. “That’s what I experienced at RFK [Stadium as a kid]. And whatever happens with the stadium, that’s the kind of stadium experience I want to create.”

But creating a home-field advantage in the modern NFL is not easy. For years, a huge array of factors — including sports science and the online secondary ticket market — has diminished the vaunted edge of playing at home in front of rabid fans. So even though home teams have won more since the pandemic dip — they are 144-112 (.563) this season, through Week 17 — it’s not necessarily because they’ve had a home-field advantage, according to three oddsmakers for major U.S. sportsbooks.

“The number of teams in the NFL right now that have a real home-field advantage is very small,” John Murray, the executive director of race and sports at Westgate Las Vegas, said.

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Overall, it’s obvious the best way to create a home-field advantage is to attract talented personnel, build a good team and win games. And in an era of unprecedented NFL parity, home edges are small but significant. Just look at how they’ve helped teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and Cleveland Browns this season.

For Washington, the end of this disastrous season has highlighted the strong headwinds it faces to improve at home. The Commanders have not finished .500 or better at FedEx Field since 2017, and their home point differential (minus-116) is on track to be the worst of any team since Jacksonville in 2013 (minus-127). Last week, San Francisco 49ers fans were the latest to flood FedEx, boo the home team and force the offense into silent count with chants of “DE-FENSE!” Expect more of the same Sunday in the season finale against the rival Cowboys, who are playing for the NFC East crown.

Historically, oddsmakers thought playing at home was worth three points. Even into the late 2000s, Washington’s strong home crowd was “definitely” worth three or more, according to Jason McCormick, vice president of race and sports for Station Casinos. But it’s diminished greatly in recent years.

“Their home-field advantage has become negligible,” McCormick said.

“There’s still some home-field advantage there,” Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations for DraftKings, said. “Maybe a point, possibly a point and a half depending on who they’re playing.”

Critically for Harris, it seems difficult to manufacture an edge. Oddsmakers said the league’s two newest stadiums, in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, do not give their teams a meaningful boost. In December, the Commanders faced the Los Angeles Rams at beautiful, sterile SoFi Stadium, and afterward, several players said they didn’t feel like the crowd had given the Rams a home-field advantage.

“At times, we were able to go on regular cadence,” tight end Logan Thomas said. He added: “I think a new stadium obviously would help [us], especially if it’s an area where the majority of the fans are. But I think winning cures all.”

“If we win, fans show up, [we] got home-field advantage,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said.

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McCormick argued the Commanders shouldn’t be compared to Las Vegas or Los Angeles because the Raiders, Rams and Chargers were relocated from other areas.

“You still have a regional bias in the D.C. area [toward the Commanders],” he said. “If the stadium is built and they can find a way to put a winning product on the field, we know that those people want to be Commander fans.”

Murray echoed that sentiment — because he is one of those people. He grew up in McLean, Va., as a huge fan of the team. His family had season tickets and named their dog after linebacker LaVar Arrington. But on trips home over the past decade, Murray has hated the long drive to FedEx Field and the relative lack of life around it. In contrast, he loves the easy metro to Nationals Park and running into old friends at nearby bars before and after ballgames.

If Harris really wants to give his team a home-field advantage, Murray said it matters whether he puts the new stadium in D.C., Maryland or Virginia.

“They have to go back to having a stadium in D.C.,” Murray said, adding, “If we could go back to the old RFK days with the crowd rocking and the bleachers shaking? I mean … that’s worth a couple of points.”

Earlier this season, the DMV flashed some of its old passion for the team. Fans packed training camp, as many as 10,000 some days. In early September, limited partner Mitchell Rales said at an economic forum that the Commanders were expecting a sellout home opener — with few fans from the visiting Arizona Cardinals.

“There’s going to be close to 60,000 fans that are rooting for one team,” he said. “These players have never seen that. That could be worth a victory or two to us at home this year, where our home record in years past is generally worse … than it was on the road. We need everybody to step up and help, and our commitment in return is to continue to reinvest in the franchise.”

But after beating Arizona, Washington lost its next six home games. A team spokesperson said every game has sold out, and the Dallas game is “trending toward” a sellout as well. But after the Chicago Bears thrashed the Commanders in Week 5, the crowds haven’t been as strong for the home team.

In November, Harris went to Seattle for the Commanders’ loss to the Seahawks. He saw how the famously loud home crowd hollered when Commanders quarterback Sam Howell tried to call plays and hushed up when it was Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith.

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“It was an edge, right?” he said not long after at a sports business conference.

For now, Harris’s dreams of re-creating RFK’s legendary home-field advantage are on hold. But the fact that it remains a possibility — even an outside possibility — is part of why he’s here in the first place.

“I understand this [fan base] is a sleeping giant,” he told The Washington Post in July. “That inherent knowledge is how I could be in this situation now. Because let’s face it, we paid the largest price ever for U.S. sports team. That’s just the reality of it. And we did that because we … believe if we do our jobs, and it’s on us, the city will come back, and the community will come back.”

Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.

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