Chris Magee

Bucknell Study: Crowds Have an Impact on Soccer Action on Field

August 3, 2023

by Mike Ferlazzo

Professor Chris Magee, economics. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Team USA survived the group stage and advanced on in the FIFA Women's World Cup while scoring just one goal during ties in its last two games. New research by two Bucknell University economics professors suggests that the large and vocal U.S. following may be able to help jump-start Team USA's anemic offense, especially late in games.

Professors Chris Magee and Amy Wolaver, husband and wife, scientifically confirm the influence large crowds in packed stadiums have on the action on the field. Their study, Crowds and the Timing of Goals and Referee Decisions, recently published in the Journal of Sports Economics, finds the per-minute rate at which goals are scored and yellow cards and penalty kicks are given increases at a faster rate over the course of the game the more fans there are in the stadium. To test their hypothesis, the researchers used a dataset including pandemic "ghost games" with no fans.

"Goals tend to be scored at higher rates later in games," Magee says. "We find that crowds help explain why this happens. The more fans there are in the stadium and the more vocal they get toward the end of the match, the greater the chance of a goal being scored in the final few minutes."

The researchers wrote that the removal of fans from stadiums across the world during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment on how crowds affect player and referee behavior and game outcomes.

Amy Wolaver

Professor Amy Wolaver, economics. Photo by Communications

"This paper uses this natural experiment to examine one potential impact of crowds that, to our knowledge, has never been previously investigated. It relates to the timing of goals and referee decisions over the course of a game," Wolaver says. "We hypothesize that crowds increase the sense of urgency to score in the context of team play as the game nears its end, and we discuss some theoretical reasons for this prediction."

To test their hypothesis, Magee and Wolaver developed an empirical model predicting the probabilities that the home and away teams will score a goal or will receive a yellow card, red card or penalty kick in each minute of the game.

"Gradually building crowd pressure leads to increasing urgency on the part of players to score as the game nears its end," Wolaver says. "This urgency leads to increased goals and more aggressive play by defenders, which also results in more cards and more penalty kicks given out per minute."

The group stage of the Women’s World Cup illustrates how often last-minute goals happen. In 12 of the first 46 games, a goal has been scored in the 90th minute of the game or in stoppage time. The empirical work by Magee and Wolaver shows that crowds can contribute to these late goals.

If Team USA finds itself behind late in its Round of 16 match against Sweden Sunday, it will no doubt draw on the energy from plenty of American fans in the stands.