The Power of the Crowd: How Fan Attendance Impacts Hockey Games

Ben Lengerich
3 min readMar 15, 2023

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For many sports, the roar of the crowd can provide an extra boost of energy for players and create an electrifying atmosphere for fans. But what’s the impact of that atmosphere on the gameplay? With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, arenas around the world were forced to close their doors to spectators; this sudden shift in game conditions gives us a natural experiment to finally ask the question — what’s the effect of fan attendance on hockey play?

Here, we will examine the impact of fan attendance on hockey games using the natural experiment of COVID-19 fan absence. By analyzing shot counts, goals, and shot attempts from before and after the pandemic, we can gain insights into the influence of fans on the game. Do more fans yelling “SHOOT!” lead to higher shot counts and goal rates? Or do players rebel against the fans who want more shots?

In this short analysis, we aim to provide a deeper understanding of the role of fans in the game of hockey. So, let’s dive in and explore the effect of fan attendance on hockey games!

From CollegeHockeyNews, we grab detailed season stats of all NCAA Division-I hockey teams. By comparing the fan-less 2020 season against the surrounding seasons, we measured the change in stats league-wide with or without fans.

Figure 1. Goals per game, shots per game, power play %, and penalty minutes per game broken down by seasons with and without fans. There were no significant changes in goals, shots, or power play %. In contrast, the presence of fans was assocaited with a significant increase in penalty minutes per game.

Amazingly, goals per game, shots per game, and power play % don’t have any strong changes with fans. However, there is a strong and robust increase in penalty minutes per game with fans in attendance, representing over 30 seconds of increased penalty minutes every game with fans (p_val=0.01).

Figure 2. Unblocked shot attempts per game, broken down by fan presence and stage of gameplay. There are significant increases in even strength shot attempts and close-distance shot attempts, but no significnat change in unblocked shot attempts during power plays.

Furthermore, shot attempts appear to increase with the presence of fans (almost 1 more shot attempt per game), although with large uncertainty. Since the shots on goal per game didn’t change at all with fans, but unblocked shot attempts increased, this increase in shot attempts must be attributable to off-target shot attempts. We can see this more clearly by breaking down the unblocked shot attempt counts into game phase: even strength shot attempts are increased by nearly 1 shot attempt per game, but power play shots don’t change at all. Since power plays are often based around set plays, this suggests that the fan atmosphere can increase shot attempts (especially off-target attempts) in improvisational play but don’t have much impact on the set plays and practiced choices. Finally, there is an increase in unblocked close shot attempts (nearly 0.6 shot attempts per game) — yet again, since the total shots don’t change, this increase in shot attempts must be attributable to off-target attempts, even at close range.

In conclusion, our analysis of the impact of fan attendance on hockey games during the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed some intriguing insights. While goals and shots per game show no significant changes with fans, there’s a clear increase in penalty minutes per game and shot attempts, particularly off-target attempts during improvisational play. These findings provide a better understanding of the role of fans in hockey and their impact on the outcome of games.

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Ben Lengerich

Postdoc @MIT | Writing about ML, AI, precision medicine, and quant econ