It seems artificial turf is as controversial as it is prolific these days in American soccer and other sports. When I came across this article on the use of artificial surfaces in England I had to give it a read.  It should be helpful in contextualizing how artificial turf plays a role in both the current landscape as well historically.  

Barnett, V., and S. Hilditch. “The Effect of an Artificial Pitch Surface on Home Team Performance in Football (Soccer).” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society) 156, no. 1 (1993): 39-50.

Bear with me a bit, as I’m not sure how my old community college statistics professor would feel about me reading and attempting to review an article from a statistics journal. Would he be proud of me for giving it a go? Would he be disappointed at just how little I’ve retained when it comes to reading challenging stat formulas? Hopefully a little of both at least. I’ll focus more on the research and conclusions, and skip a bit of the statistical nuance.

Barnett and Hilditch research focuses on four English football clubs who have been playing on “artificial- surface pitch.”This article, written in 1993 and looking back over a ten year period, highlights Queen’s Park Rangers, Luton Town, Oldham Athletic, and Preston North-End as the four club who have used artificial turf in their home stadium during the research period. It should be noted that as far as I can tell, no clubs currently use artificial turf, although there has been a call for them to be reinstated.

Most complaints and fears about artificial turf have been centered around the idea that plastic fields increase injury. Barnett and Hilditch take a different line of inquiry here, as they ask if these pitches present any kind of home field advantage. Their study was done at the request of the Football League.

Now the limitations of such a study are pretty obvious. The number of variables that go into a single match are innumerable, and what make the game both beautiful and heart-breaking to fans. While many limitations are obvious at first consideration, Barnett and Hilditch admitted to additional layers, including being unable to quantify how visiting teams adapted over time to artificial fields, variations of field size, or patterns of results over weekly intervals (40).

Perhaps most problematic is the very small sample size. Four teams, in four divisions, over eight seasons left the study with only about 1% of all the games being played on an artificial surface. That would be 362 games out of 32,468 overall if you want to know the raw stats (40).

The researchers looked at points, goals, and match results to come to their final conclusions.

Skipping right through a number of pages full of tables and impressive graphs, Barnett and Hilditch’s conclusion is clear. “The overall outcomes of this study of the Englsih Football League results for eight seasons to 1988-1989 indicate(s) a statistically significant, if fairly modest, advantage in home match performance for teams employing an artificial pitch” (49).

Here’s one of the more useful tables:

capturepitch

This article is a bit dated obviously. The artificial pitch used in the 1980s is undoubtedly different that today’s modern surfaces. Other researchers and journalists have tackled this topic from a contemporary perspective. I wanted to highlight and review Barnett and Hilditch for a few reasons. First, home field advantage has not been the first thing that comes up in discussions about the use of artificial turf. Second, this is a soccer specific study. There is a lot of information talking about turf in American sports that misses the complexities of turf for a sport like soccer. Finally, as I start to research soccer in the United States, turf has been widely used in the modern era from the old NASL, to USL, MLS, and all those leagues in between.

If there are any statisticians out there looking to do some updated research on this, I’m sure MLS and American fans of the game would be appreciative.

Everyone has an opinion on artificial turf, so what’s yours? Comment or engage with me on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory. Any edits, corrections, or other correspondence: kevin.mercer AT outlook.com

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