Critics of the bowl system in college football would argue that there are too many bowl games. I don’t agree – the more the merrier in my mind. There’s no doubt, though, that there are some bowl games that just aren’t embraced by the community they are played in or the fans of the schools playing in them. Every year, especially early in the bowl schedule or in the non-BCS games at the end of the schedule, you can tune in and see games where there seem to be more players on the field than fans in the stands. These games can provide challenges for handicappers. It can be hard at the best of times to determine the impact of the crowd in bowl games, but it can be especially tough when the crowd is all but non-existent. Here are five factors college football handicappers need to consider when thinking about the betting impact of bowls played in virtually empty stadiums:
Will teams have travelling fans? – Even in a basically empty football stadium it can be significant if one team has some fans that have traveled. In fact, at times the only fans in the stadium are the traveling fans of one school. There are some teams that travel very well, and others that don’t. Because schools have allotments of tickets they have to buy whether they sell them or not it is usually pretty easy to find stories about how those tickets are selling and how many fans might represent each team. A major imbalance in these numbers can lead to a significant crowd edge for one squad – even if the overall crowd size is small.
Will fans that are there have a bias? – Even if the fans of the school aren’t likely to travel there is a chance that the fans that do attend the game are going to have the clear preference for one team over the other. Is one school located significantly closer to the host stadium than the other? Does one program have a larger national presence, or have a star player that will attract attention? Does one school have a high profile NFL star as a proud alumni, or a coach who is getting a lot of attention? If the crowd has a clear preference then that team could receive a nice boost as a result and could be a good bet.
How empty is the stadium really going to be? – Before the game starts you can often get a sense of what the likely attendance is going to be. You might rely on past history with the game, reports of tickets sales, or other news stories surrounding the game. Sometimes a stadium that seems empty actually has many more people in it than it seems. 20,000 people can look almost invisible in an 80,000 seat stadium, for example. Before you spend too much time worrying about what a small crowd will mean you need to make sure that it really will be small.
What are the teams used to? – Some teams are going to be far more affected by playing in front of a small crowd than others because of what they are used to. Michigan routinely plays in front of more than 110,000 people, so in the unlikely event that they played in an almost empty stadium it could really affect them. On the other hand, a college like Buffalo that always plays in front of a stadium packed with empty seats won’t feel any different than they do most of the time, so it is really nothing for the bettor to worry about.
Would a big crowd have made a difference? – This is ultimately the biggest question for the college football handicapper to ask. There will unquestionably be an impact for both teams if there is no one really watching a game, and as we have shown that impact could be more significant for one team than the other. That difference is never going to be particularly significant, though. The small crowd could have enough of an impact to affect the outcome between two very evenly matched teams. If the football game was destined to be one-sided, though, then it would be a mistake to give the lack of a crowd too much credit and expect it to change the outcome dramatically. In other words, this is a factor will small but significant impact, not a game changer.