We’re now something like six months into the no-spectators sports world. Seven if you start with the German Bundesliga in May. It’s been only a little more than three here in the Colonies, as the NBA, NHL, and MLB started at the end of July. Football has only been through four weeks. And yet a common theme has emerged in every team sport (baseball doesn’t count as it’s only masquerading as a team sport): scoring has been way up on both sides of the Atlantic.
First, the hard numbers.
Scoring in the Premier League has gone utterly bonkers, with 3.78 goals per game, up from 2.72 the previous season. Serie A has seen a much smaller increase, but an increase, from 2.9 goals per game to 3.1.
On this side of the pond, NFL scoring has gone off the rails… or gotten into the rails, depending on which way you want to go. Teams are averaging 25.7 points per game through Week 4, up from 22.8 last year. That’s a 13 percent increase. The NBA saw an uptick once the bubble started as well, with scoring going from 110.7 points per 100 possessions to 113 once The Bubble started, with that number swelling as high as 114.2 at the beginning of the playoffs. Overall, teams have averaged 109.9 points per game in the playoffs this year versus 107.8 last year.
To try and explain the rise in scoring across different sports would be a tad silly. Each is different and has its own factors. For one, in the NFL, referees have simply stopped calling holding penalties. In the Premier League, on the other hand, there have been a rash of penalties called thanks to the new, Seussian handball rule. Neither fully explains the scoring increase, but both are major factors.
And it’s not completely sports-wide. NHL scoring in the playoffs was slightly down from last year. Likewise, baseball scoring dipped slightly during this abbreviated season, which is something of a surprise. With the short run-up pitchers got, you’d think they would have been chum for hitters, at least early in the regular season. Then again, roster spots were added, allowing for more relievers, which also probably played a role in this. And baseball is just weird anyway.
Still, the one common factor across soccer, basketball, and (mostly) football over the past few months is that there haven’t been fans. Surely that has to play a huge part, right?
That’s what one anonymous Premier League player thinks. His comments are a pretty great read, but to sum up, the idea is that without fans, players just aren’t quite as focused as they might normally be. Not that they don’t care, but there’s a missing 5 percent to 10 percent, a juice every player could tap into from the normal atmosphere. And when defending, you’re reacting. A drop in focus leaves you behind that much more, which leads to more clear looks at the goal or the hoop.
You could argue, if you squint, that this was the case over the weekend in the Premier League when both Manchester United and Liverpool were utterly embarrassed and torn to shreds by Tottenham and Aston Villa, respectively. In United’s case, there weren’t 70,000 fans screaming at them to improve or asking for their money back or colorful descriptions of most of the players’ families. Once the ball started rolling downhill on them, there didn’t seem to be much motivation to stop it. Things were quiet either way. Which is how you get Paul Pogba giving away this inexplicable yet highly comedic penalty for Spurs’ sixth goal late.
With Liverpool, they continued to play a simply suicidal combination of a ridiculously high defensive line with low attention spans. There weren’t 40,000 fans mocking them or singing wildly at the best day Villa have had in years, or their own traveling fans looking on sheepishly. There was no external pressure.
It’s a stretch, but it’s also been that away teams in the Premier League have increased their scoring, because atmospheres just aren’t intimidating at the moment.
In the NFL, the lowering of penalty calls is hard to pin on a lack of fans, though it’s hard to know just how the quiet stadiums have affected the refs in any way. For the NBA, players have said the lack of travel has left them less worn down physically, as well as essentially having the same sightlines every night instead of changing arenas and views every couple days. And in both basketball and football, any decrease in inattentiveness on defense is going to be punished. The guess was the NFL’s lack of a preseason would affect offensive timing and reaction, but it appears to be the opposite. In any sport, when a player’s attention wavers, it tends to be on the defensive end (except for that annoying try-hard on your high school team).
Also there’s the added element that both offenses can operate in serene quiet and get their signals across. No silent counts, no adjustments, no added juice for the defense. And according to nflpenalties.com, false starts in the NFL are down from 2.2 per game in 2019 to 1.8 through four weeks this season. Fewer false starts, as offensive linemen don’t need to worry about crowd noise drowning out their quarterbacks, can translate to longer drives and more points.
We won’t know for sure until fans return, or the NFL season provides a bigger sample, but it does at least feel like the amped-up atmosphere and pressure live fans provide players does have an effect.