One of the most common things NHL players tell the media during the playoffs is that, when on the road, they want to play well during the first period in order to “take the fans out of the game early”.
If we assume that the players are correct in thinking that the fans can have strong influence over the game — even though, notably, home-team advantage has been quite a bit less significant in the NHL than in the NBA, and is arguably more to do with biases in officiating than anything else — it begs the question of whether some teams’ fans are better at cheering than others.
Usually most of the focus here gets put on sheer loudness: the louder the fans, the better. In this year’s playoffs, for example, sportscasters have been talking a lot about how the Rangers’ struggles at home may be due in part to renovations that have made Madison Square Gardens a quieter arena to play in than it used to be.
But what might, perhaps, be lacking in these discussions is a focus on the timing of fans’ cheering. In the NHL, most cheering tends to occur when the home team is already playing well. When a team is doing poorly, however, it is more likely to hear only a brief, classless “Refs You Suck” chant, rather than the more sustained, energizing, and joyous “Go Leafs Go!”
It is not, or at least it appears not to be, the fans as a whole who tend to shift the momentum in the game. Rather it seems more often to be individual achievements that do so: a timely goal to get the home team back in the game, a big hit being landed or power play started, or a super-determined (and probably drunk) fan who just wont give up cheering until everybody sitting around him — and then, ultimately, the entire arena — joins in too.
The way fans cheer may be the worst nightmare of the honest, god-fearing Keynesian. Rather than provide stimulus during teams’ recessions, and restraint during their boom times, fans cheer when teams are already playing well, and are often quiet when things look grim.
This raises questions that are usually more associated with economics and politics than hockey. Can stimulus lead to mistakes borne of overconfidence? Is stimulus always equally good, or does it succumb to diminishing returns — and if so, how soon after it begins? And how much better are some governments (or fans) than others at doling out stimulus at the ideal time?
Obviously, these are contested, and more or less unsolved, or even insoluble, questions in economics. In sports, though, we cannot even begin to approach the question, since nobody (as far as I know) has gathered the data that would be necessary to make a start of it. If we want to know more — and yes, I admit it: this is obviously not really an issue of burning importance — we’re going to need a hockey-loving economist who possesses the skill and resources to do so.
Malcolm Gladwell, if you’re out there somewhere, get to work.