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Is Home Field Advantage Real?

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As the World Series heads to Game Six tonight, the Red Sox are up three games to two. Boston lost once at home in Fenway Park, and the St. Louis Cardinals got beat twice at their own Busch Stadium. They’ve each won only one game at home. Both teams are missing out on that certain something, that edge that seems to come from playing in your own stadium in front of the hometown fans. Is that home field advantage real?

The science points to yes. Plenty of researchers have crunched the numbers on various sports and found that the home team consistently wins a greater proportion of games. In a review of bunch of these types of studies in 2010, Jeremy P. Jamieson, a psychologist at Northeastern University in Boston, concluded that a home team will win approximately 60 percent of all games.

What contributes to this advantage? Researchers have found a number of things that give an edge to the home team, some more obvious than others. Jamieson arranges them into a few categories.

The hometown crowd

Larger and denser crowds, which the home team would expect to have with their fans living nearby, are associated with bigger advantages for the home team. The crowd’s behavior also has an effect, and studies have found that when the fans boo the home team for poor plays, it acts as a motivator for better performance—more so than when a visiting team is booed. Other research suggests that noise from the crowd can influence the judgments of referees and umpires, and fewer calls are made against the home team when the officials can hear the crowd than when the fans are quiet. 

The familiar field

Another factor is the players’ familiarity with their stadium’s facilities and the playing surface. One study found that teams that relocate to a new stadium enjoy a reduced home field advantage for a while. Even if it’s their stadium, the unfamiliarity takes away from their edge over away teams until they get settled in to the new home. 

Business travel

The third factor Jamieson found was travel. Away teams sometimes have to travel a long way to their competitors’ home stadium, and studies have linked the away team’s travel distance to the level of advantage that the home team has over the visitors. One of the main drivers behind this effect was the jet lag from long-distance east-west travel affecting visiting teams’ performance and game outcomes. 

Positive thinking

Finally, these three factors all feed into a fourth: the psychological states of the players. Athletes report feeling more positive and motivated when playing at home, which can affect their performance. 

In his review of the research, Jamieson found that baseball teams generally have a weaker home field advantage than teams and competitors in other sports. Jamieson thinks that the one underlying cause here is season length and game importance. Major League Baseball teams play 162 game in a regular season, so each individual game contributes less to their final win percentage. If the players see an individual game as less important to the overall season, it might reduce a home team’s motivation. 

The crowd factor also seems to come into play here. In 2007, Jamieson writes, the average MLB stadium had a capacity of 45,097 and average attendance for the season was 32,717. So, for an average regular season game, about three quarters of the seats are filled. The English Premiere football league (soccer, to us Yanks), in comparison, filled a little more than 80 percent of the seats on average that same year, and showed a much larger home field advantage effect. A lower crowd density might help explain why baseball shows less of a home field advantage effect than more well-attended sports. 

That said, NFL football has a shorter season than MLB baseball and denser crowds (around 98 percent of the seats were filled, on average, in 2007), but Jamieson found those teams had a similar home field advantage to MLB, so something else has to be going on here to account for the differences between sports. Jamieson suggests that fan behavior could contribute. While soccer and football fans are known to be active and rowdy, baseball, he says, has a “less intense atmosphere in which fans routinely leave even before the game is over.” 

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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