I was way behind the rest of the Interworld in catching up with the Eden Hazard ballboy kicking, but coming late has its advantages. As is presumably well known to followers of this particular competition, but not to others, the “ballboy” is a minor match official whose job it is to return the ball when it goes out of play. Traditionally, this was done by actual boys, aged in their early teens, who volunteered to help out in this way – giving out this coveted job being a minor perk for the senior officials of the club. Naturally, they were supporters of the home team, but this was unimportant.
But, now, it seems, the typical “ballboy” is a young man, under instructions to make life easy for the home side and difficult for the visitors. This is a new twist on the standard practice of grimy visitors’ dressing rooms with unreliable hot water and so on. All of this helps to create a home ground advantage.
This raises some interesting points about the business of sport.
Ultimately, it’s entertainment, and, in sport as in movies, most people prefer happy endings. So, the ideal sporting event would be one at which all the spectators saw their own side win. Given that these events are normally zero-sum games, that’s a bit difficult. But, if you set things up so that there is a substantial home ground advantage, then, most of the audience will go away happy most of the time. The other way to get the desired result is to set things up so that the same teams stay on top for a long time. That way, they attract more followers, who get to see them win most of their games.
TV changes things quite a bit. For a TV audience, there’s no difference between home and away games. On the other hand, and assuming a capitalist form of organization like that of Association football, the revenue from TV creates a virtuous circle in which winning teams get more revenue and therefore keep on winning. This process appears to reach a natural limit when two teams achieve complete dominance, while the rest play the role of Washington Generals to the Old Firm’s Harlem Globetrotters.
fn1. As you might expect, given their egalitarian culture, most American sports adopt a more socialist form of organization in which systems such as the draft are used to penalize success. The city-based franchise system ensures followers for teams that never win – in fact, there is even some cachet for teams that haven’t won in decades.