When it comes to success in professional sports, the support of an ardent fanbase is even more crucial than it may seem.
Home-field advantage is a big deal in professional sports. When a team plays in its home stadium, the players don’t have to travel; they feel more comfortable with their practice and rest routines and tend to play more confidently. But the biggest reason why National Basketball Association (NBA) teams win 60.6% of their home games is the impact of fans on the game. Crowds can disrupt communication, distract opponents, and give the home team an energy boost. Two years ago, when Michigan visited Penn State for a college football rivalry game, the fans made so much noise that the Michigan players couldn’t hear their quarterback call the first play. They were forced to call a timeout before the game had even started. Last NBA season, the Philadelphia 76ers were 31-4 in home games, but just 12-26 on the road. Unfortunately, these raucous environments, as well as fanbase traditions, were suspended in 2020, as COVID protocols emptied, or nearly emptied, stadiums. The three teams that benefit most from home-field advantage—Duke University’s Men’s Basketball, the Green Bay Packers, and Borussia Dortmund—have dedicated followers and unique traditions during typical seasons, but all of that energy vanished in 2020. For the first time in NFL history, home teams had a losing record.
The Duke Men’s Basketball team entered March Madness as a number-one seed 15 times since 1980, winning five national championships in the same period and boasting a history of excellence with which few schools can compete. Duke has produced NBA stars like Hall-of-Famer Grant Hill, All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson, and proficient scorers JJ Reddick and Brandon Ingram. The Blue Devils’ success can surely be attributed to talented players and good coaching. However, the team’s student fanbase, the Cameron Crazies (named after Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium), are a vital aspect of the school’s energy and winning culture.
Cameron Indoor Stadium is quite small, with a capacity for fewer than 10,000 fans. Of these limited seats, 1,200 of the best are reserved for students. To get a ticket, students compete in trivia contests and wait in line for hours, ensuring that only the most dedicated fans get seats. Before Duke’s home games against rival UNC, thousands of students participate in “tenting” in the line dubbed “Krzyzewskiville” after Duke’s beloved basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, camping outside for weeks in the middle of winter for a coveted ticket.
Of course, dedication doesn’t end with the ticket. Always ready to fight for their team, Crazies arm themselves as they enter the stadium with a “dirt sheet” of ammunition against the opposition: the names of ex-girlfriends, legal mishaps, embarrassing quotes and incidents in each player’s past, and potential chants intended to rattle Duke’s opponents. For example, when Duke played the University of Virginia’s Cavaliers in 2016, the dirt on Malcolm Brogdon, NBA Rookie of the Year in 2017, read, “kicked out of his local YMCA when he was fourteen years old because he was fighting his brother after a game of 21.”
All of this organization, energy, and intensity propelled Duke to a 75-9 home record from 2015-2020. In 2020, however, no fans were allowed into Cameron, and Duke went just 8-5 at home. After a disappointing season, the Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in twenty-five years. The Crazies continued supporting the team through virtual watch parties and trivia contests, but Duke struggled without the energy, noise, and intimidation they usually provided. For the college basketball powerhouse, the end of the pandemic can’t come quickly enough.
More than one thousand miles north of Cameron Indoor Stadium, the small city of Green Bay, Wisconsin is home to the Green Bay Packers football team and its rabid fans, known as the Cheeseheads. The city has slightly more than 100,000 residents, making it the smallest National Football League (NFL) market by nearly a factor of four (New Orleans being next at 390,000 people). Typically, professional sports teams that begin in small markets have moved to larger cities where they can sell more tickets and jerseys, but the Packers organization has a unique attribute that prevents such a move: the team is publicly-owned.
Most NFL teams are owned by the wealthiest families in the world, who often seek to maximize revenue at the expense of their players and fans by increasing ticket and food prices, pushing for longer seasons, and maintaining nearly all of the decision-making power. The Packers, though, are owned by about 360,000 shareholders. The team has offered shares to the public five times since 1923, with each share costing $250 at the most recent offering in 2012. Outside of these five windows, shares cannot be bought or sold, and ownership is strictly handed down within a family. The team requires that no singular person owns more than 4% of shares, ensuring that the Packers will remain publicly owned.
What does holding Packers stock mean? In reality, absolutely nothing. Buying shares of the team has been called ‘the worst investment ever.’ Unlike buying a company’s stock, which pays dividends and has the ability to increase in value, Packers stockholders will never see their money back. Shareholders do, however, receive a souvenir certificate, the chance to buy exclusive merchandise, and a ticket to the annual shareholder meeting in Green Bay. Essentially, becoming a shareholder is equivalent to joining an exclusive fan club which happens to support the team when it is struggling financially. As bad of a deal as it might seem, the Cheeseheads will buy shares at any price to support the organization.
During the 2020 season, the Packers played in an empty Lambeau Field. Many Cheeseheads were concerned about COVID risks and said they wouldn’t have bought tickets even if they had been available. Wayne Sargent, known as the “Ultimate Packers Fan”, noted that “going to a football game […] is not just to watch the game. It’s the tailgating, meeting up with seasonal friends, and enjoying the comradery of others that makes it a special day.” Since none of that could happen in a safe and enjoyable way, Packers fans decided to put their traditions on hold in 2020. After beating the Los Angeles Rams in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Green Bay fought hard but was knocked out by Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, who won the Superbowl two weeks later.
While the Cameron Crazies and the Cheeseheads both have small, tight-knit fanbases in their respective areas, a whopping 52% of German soccer fans support Borussia Dortmund, also known as BVB. Borussia has been described as ‘more of a religion than a team’ and as ‘the best-supported, most fun, coolest club in the world.’ Borussia’s motto is “Echte Liebe,” which means ‘real love’ and captures the organization’s energy perfectly. The team’s fans are welcoming and high-spirited, taking a more wholesome approach to their love of BVB than the Crazies do when Duke plays. In 2017, a UEFA Champions League game was cancelled at the last minute, so Borussia fans opened up their own homes to visitors who had come to support the opposing club. The team self-admittedly doesn’t have the resources or prestige to compete with franchises like Barcelona or Real Madrid, but BVB’s community makes it a special place for developing players to join. Young stars like Christian Pusilic and Erling Haaland have enjoyed playing for Borussia at the beginning of their careers, because Dortmund is a club that truly cares about its players and wants to see them grow.
When 80,000 fans stream into Signal Iduna Park on game days, nearly all of them arrive in yellow jerseys with banners, flags, hats, and scarves. The most unique section of the stadium is the “Yellow Wall,” a 25,000-person standing capacity grandstand behind the northeast goal. The grandstand is only 75,000 square feet and has a slope of more than 30°, making the section a steep and tightly-packed area that looks exactly like a wall of people. Opposing teams have shared their fear of this intimidating group of fans, while Borussia players say they get goosebumps every time they run onto the field. The Yellow Wall uses noisemakers, songs, and mass choreography to display messages.
BVB players certainly take advantage of the energy boost. The team scored a league-high of 52 goals at home in 2018, and boasted a win rate of 82% before 2020. But when the pandemic emptied stadiums, the Yellow Wall advantage was lost. Borussia has only won 46.2% of its home games since.
So what do these three teams, playing different sports in different parts of the world, have in common? In their own unique ways, all three have created cohesive, energetic, and fun communities where fans can unite around sports. Unfortunately, the pandemic has interrupted many of the traditions that these face-painting, costume-wearing, banner-waving supporters thoroughly enjoy, losses that have clearly impacted team performance. But thanks to social media, fans have kept in touch virtually, continued watching games, and maintained lively communities. As the vaccine rollout continues and restrictions are lifted, these enthusiasts will be happier than ever to stream back into stadiums and give their favorite teams a powerful energy boost, once again.