Officiating and Attendance
There has been a bit of recent discussion on Facebook about the behavior of Harding basketball fans, including some comments about the officials and their part in all of this. An article posted today on ESPN.com about questionable officiating in Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference games prompted me to look into this a little more from our perspective in the Gulf South Conference.
Does Harding get special treatment because of the atmosphere at the Rhodes Field House? That’s what the article would seem to imply, given the comments of San Francisco coach Jessie Evans. Personally, I think the quality of officiating in Division I is far greater than in Division II, which I suppose is to be expected. It’s unfortunate that games are compromised at our level because the officiating crews are not as competent as those in D-I, but I suppose you get what you pay for.
Harding’s role in the GSC is analogous to that of Gonzaga in the WCC based on attendance factors alone (Harding has not had anything close to Gonzaga’s success). If you’d like to peruse the attendance records on your own, they can be found at this site, but I think I’ve pulled out the important numbers.
The West Coast Conference averaged 2,804 fans per game last season, setting a record high for the conference, which ranked #17 of the 31 D-I conferences. Gonzaga’s new facility was probably the main reason for that increase, since they regularly sell out their 6,000-seat capacity (they actually averaged 6,422 last year somehow). In short, Gonzaga draws roughly twice the conference average (229% to be exact).
The Gulf South Conference, by comparison, averaged 914 fans per game last season, ranking ninth among D-II conferences (amazingly, the North Central Conference averages 2,252, more than 9 D-I conferences). Harding’s average attendance was 2,420, ranking #11 in Division-II. That’s 265% of the conference average, which is pretty similar to Gonzaga’s number.
So, does this similarity mean that the same holds true in the GSC? Does Harding get special treatment? I would argue that we don’t, as I’m sure many fans who attended games this year would also attest. The volume of poor officiating calls in Searcy this year was staggering, but most of the time, the calls went both ways. Gonzaga’s advantage seems to be that they’re really just a better team, which would explain the free-throw disparity bemoaned by the San Francisco coach in the ESPN article. Better offensive teams typically draw contact inside and make their free throws.
Effects on free throw shooting
The next logical step for this argument is to look at the free-throw disparity in Harding’s GSC games. Gonzaga clearly has an edge there, but does Harding? Not in the least bit. The following table includes all of the relevant free-throw numbers from this conference season, including my personal ranking of the teams in terms of overall discipline (with my underlying theory being that the most disciplined teams should have the best foul disparity).
2005-06 GSC Free Throw Data:
|Home games only:||Fouls||Team||Opp.|
There are a few conclusions worth noting from this data:
1. The underlying theory mentioned above seems to work, with the notable exceptions being UAM and Henderson State, which both have a higher disparity than I would have anticipated. Perhaps my bias forced me to rank HSU so low, but I really do see them as a talented, but undisciplined team. UAM seems much more disciplined, but they did exceptionally well in the foul disparity. Their guards, in particular, did a good job getting to the free throw line, and I’m not sure how to explain that besides chalking it up to offensive aggression.
2. Harding is about where I would expect in terms of foul disparity, but the number of fouls called on both teams in Harding games is much higher than the average. The Bisons were called for 26 more fouls (about 1.5 per game) more than the next highest team, but Bison opponents were also called for 13 more fouls than the next highest opponent total. If there’s any conclusion to be made here, it’s not that the referees were biased for or against Harding, but that officials were more eager to blow their whistles in HU games. Perhaps the crowd makes the refs want to be part of the show, but I’m really not seeing any statistically significant bias in either direction.
The effect on the Bisons does not seem to be from biased officiating in terms of fouls against Harding. However, the fact that more fouls were called in Harding games did have a indirect negative effect on the Bisons. From that chart, you can see that HU was the second-worst free throw shooting team in the conference, while HU opponents shot 2% above the league average (which can be almost entirely attributed to luck). This disparity in team free throw shooting was magnified because of the strange (but not necessarily biased) officiating in Harding games, although it’s difficult to tell what effect this may have had on the outcome of any specific game. It’s also important to note that this is not a new phenomenon for 2005-06. The same thing happened last year, if the projections from my not-quite-complete data held up. Also, the data for the home teams only breaks down pretty much the same way, just with a little more statistical noise.
My concluding thought is simply this: let’s hope that next year, officials will learn to not only call games fairly, but also call them the same no matter what teams are involved. The Bisons were a bit unlucky in that department this year, but it was through no one else’s fault but their own.