SU sports teams deconstruct home court advantage

Article by Nicole Harris and Alexa Voss
Data Visualization by Siyu Liu
Infographic by Regan Spencer

It was a game day against the Louisville Cardinals on Nov. 10, 2012. The Syracuse Orange football team wasted no time with huddles, rushing to the line of scrimmage after each play and marching down the field against their undefeated and nationally ranked opponents.

Though it wasn’t particularly hot outside, the Orange’s home field, the Carrier Dome, had trapped the heat and humidity, making it harder for the players to breathe.

“We put together a long drive and capped it off with a touchdown,” said senior offensive guard Rob Trudo, who was then playing in his first season on the team. “No exaggeration, a defensive lineman started to puke in his stance as we kicked the extra point.”

This lineman was one of many opponents who have struggled to adapt to the Dome’s unique playing environment. The stadium’s high temperatures, elevated air pressure, ability to skew depth perception, and yellow-hued lighting tend to throw off visiting players. The Syracuse teams, in turn, use the Dome’s quirks as advantages against an team not used to playing in the building.

And the strategy works: Syracuse handed Louisville its first loss of the season on that Nov. 10 game – a 45-26 blowout.

Breaking Down the Home Court Advantage

The 49,262-seat Dome doesn’t necessarily seem like an ideal venue, but it’s striking inflatable roof and central campus location have made it an iconic Syracuse University landmark for the past 35 years.

The SU athletic teams have trained themselves to use this landmark to their benefit. Through innumerable hours of practice, each team has been able to adapt to the abnormalities of the court, leaving opposing teams unaccustomed to the strange environment at a disadvantage.

According to Erica Bodt, a senior who plays midfield on the women’s lacrosse team, the lighting in the Dome often throws off the opposing teams. The small yellow lacrosse ball blends in with the yellow-hued lights, so the players need to concentrate extra hard when trying to catch it.

“You have to really focus on catching the ball or reading it as it’s coming down,” Bodt said.

To compensate for the irregular lighting, the women’s lacrosse team moves their practices from Manley Field House to the Dome two or three days before a game so the players’ eyes can adjust.

Bodt remembers playing a home game against Florida during the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

“Our goalie launched a ball down the field and, as I looked up, I couldn’t find it,” she said. “I just had to put my stick out and hope I caught it. Fortunately I did, but the lights definitely threw me for a loop.”

For SU’s basketball teams, the main advantage of playing in the Dome is the venue’s open space, which can disorient opponents and skew depth perception. The Dome was built to accommodate a football team; thus, the basketball court is placed over the football field for games and practices. The setup of this makeshift court allows for substantial open space between the baskets and the bleachers. Opposing teams who aren’t accustomed to these measurements struggle when gauging their distance relative to the basket.

“They feel like they’re shooting to a football field,” said Quentin Hillsman, the SU women’s basketball coach.

Brittney Sykes, a senior guard on the women’s basketball team, said members of opposing teams sometimes complain about the Dome’s ability to skew depth perception.

“They’ll go, ‘Man, I hate playing in the Dome. I can’t shoot a free throw, there’s too much space in the background,’ ” she said.

Having practice in the Dome allows players to get a feel for the unusual court setup. Familiarity with the home court also helps Sykes understand its “sweet spots” and “dead spots.”

“If you’re in a press, you’re pressing, you know where they can dribble the ball and the ball won’t bounce back. So we know where not to go and where to force them into traps,” Sykes said. “We know where we like to shoot, we know where we like to put the ball.”

According to Peter Sala, managing director, the high noise level in the stadium is another advantage for SU teams. The acoustics of the structure allow sound to echo, which led to the popular nickname, “the Loud House.”

“The Dome traps noise, unlike other stadiums. People underestimate how loud it gets in there sometimes,” Trudo said.

Players on visiting teams may get distracted or overwhelmed from the noisy cheers and chants.

Sala also suggests the temperature can act as another plus for the Orange.

“In those early September games, it’s hot. And we’re used to it and sometimes they’re not,” he said.

Similarly, students who play in the Dome are accustomed to its unusually high level of air pressure, which comes from the fans used to keep the roof inflated. For opposing teams, the pressurized air can make breathing difficult.

“A lot of teams don’t know the Dome air,” Sykes said. “You go to other arenas and they’re at different altitudes, but the Dome is so big and air pressurized. We know our lungs are used to it, but the other teams… it just hits them. So it works out for us.”

Air pressure affects the football team, as well. Trudo used this year’s game against Boston College, which has the one of the top defenses in the country, as an example.

“They’re not used to being on the field a lot,” Trudo said. “In between the plays, breathing heavily, I told No. 93, one of their defensive ends, ‘F—. I can barely breathe.’ He responded, ‘Dude, it’s impossible to get air in this place, I hate it.’ ”

Aside from its unique dynamics, the Dome offers its players another perk: never having to play in bad weather.

“Being able to avoid all of the elements that the weather throws at us in Syracuse, New York, is a must,” said Eric White, director of football recruiting operations.

Despite all of the advantages of the Dome, it has some disadvantages. A few players, like Trudo, regret they can’t play on an outdoor field. For that reason, some athletes enjoy getting the feel of other teams’ stadiums while playing at away games.

Another disadvantage, especially for SU’s smaller sports, is the sheer size of the Dome. Fewer people typically go to lacrosse and women’s basketball games, which makes the large arena seem empty.

“We don’t fill the Dome. Only one-half is fans,” said Kayla Treanor, a senior who plays attack on the women’s lacrosse team.

However, these minor Dome disadvantages don’t hugely impact athletes’ experience of playing in SU’s title stadium. For some, the opportunity to play for a Division I sports team overpowers the Dome’s imperfections.

“I didn’t come here because of the Dome,” said Trudo.

The Dome as a Recruitment Tool
There is nothing else like the Dome in university sports. Potential recruits will often visit many facilities before selecting a place to call home, and White said he is glad to offer them a stadium that stands out.

“I know that every single sport brings their kids here, whether they play here or not,” Sala said. “We see teams here every single day.”

Bodt, for example, didn’t get to practice in the Dome during her recruitment process for the women’s lacrosse team; however, she saw a basketball game in the stadium. She said the Dome positively affected her view of SU. For her, the size of the Dome, the enthusiastic fans, the Syracuse culture and how much pride everyone had made the prospect of committing to SU even more exciting.

“It’s our home court, so you have that sense of pride,” Bodt said. “It’s just really great to be able to play in a place where so many legends have played.”