Academics argue on shirt colour affecting results
Here’s one to ponder while gazing at another dull and drabby December sky. Can colour affect sporting performance? Tiger Woods certainly thinks so. “I wear red on Sundays because my mom thinks that’s my power colour,” he said, while blasting his way to 15 majors. So does Sir Alex Ferguson, who famously changed Manchester United’s grey kits at half-time during a 1996 defeat to Southampton because, he claimed, his players had struggled to pick each other out. Meanwhile, for more than 15 years a battle has raged in sober journals over whether a red uniform can provide a winning edge – and whether other colours lead to a disadvantage.
Newspapers, including the Guardian and New York Times, have also reported on the latest developments with breathless fascination. “Red is the tint for winners,” we wrote in 2005. “When all else is equal, a sporting strip of scarlet is enough to tip the balance.” Our report highlighted a highly influential study in Nature that examined combat sports at the 2004 Olympics and found that across 19 of 29 weight classes in boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestling, red had more winners than blue.
According to the academics the colour red had provided a slight yet robust enough advantage to tilt the outcome.
Meanwhile in 2008 a separate team of academics made another startling claim: that teams wearing red not only won more titles in English football between 1946 and 2003, but they won more at home and had a higher average league position relative to derby rivals in the same city who wore other colours. There was even a theory to explain this apparent phenomenon, rooted in evolution and culture, and linking red to dominance and a tendency for aggressive behaviour. As the Guardian explained in 2005: “Redness indicates anger, testosterone and male aggression in humans, mandrills and sticklebacks. In experiments, red leg bands have helped ringed birds win a higher place in the pecking order. Red plays a big role in signalling superiority throughout the animal world.”
It might sound plausible. Perhaps even enticing. However a new study, Red Shirt Colour Has No Effect on Winning in European Soccer, published in the January 2022 journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise crashes a large torpedo into the red superiority hypothesis. First researchers reanalysed the original 2008 study on English football and found some of the assumptions and conclusions “flawed”. Then they made a detailed statistical analysis of Premier League results between 1992-2018 to see whether red made a difference in more recent years but found “no evidence for the alternative hypothesis of a colour effect on percentages of home wins, points per game, and average ranking”.
That wasn’t all. The academics at the University of San Diego and the German Sport University then looked at matches in Portugal, Germany, Netherlands, France and Italy over the last 20 years. Once again they discovered a team’s kit colour did not significantly impact their expected performance.
Is Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty more likely to attract the eye of the referee than Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk because of his black jersey? A 2012 paper suggested so. Photograph: Mark J Terrill/AP
“Overall with the statistics that we have, it’s a lot more likely that that null hypothesis is true: that there aren’t any colour effects,” explains one of the report’s authors, Dr Philip Furley. “And so it’s about 10 times more likely that across all the data, that there is no colour effect, as opposed to there is a colour effect.” Another of the report’s authors, Nadav Goldschmied, says the findings reflect a wider pattern. “It sounds like a good story, that wearing red can make a difference,” adds Goldschmied, who has tried to find evidence of the effect of red superiority in men’s and women’s NCAA basketball without success. “But it isn’t supported empirically.”
That, though, isn’t the end of the matter. A second area of discussion focuses on whether wearing certain colours affects visibility. Intriguingly the theory developed after researchers noticed those wearing blue over white appeared to win more judo bouts at the 2004 Olympics in Athens than would be expected by chance. Their explanation? That those in white stood out more against the background of fans and therefore their movements were more easily detected by opponents. Yet when other researchers looked at judo in the 2004 Games they found no advantage to those wearing blue. Meanwhile a third area of research, examining how umpires unconsciously react to a team’s kit, suggests that teams in black might be penalised more often. The theory is that black is associated with malevolence, and thus professional players wearing the colour are deemed to be more aggressive.
And, intriguingly, one major study, looking at 25 seasons of NHL penalty-minute data, appears to back it up. It found that teams wearing black were handed more penalty minutes, while white jerseys were uniquely associated with less aggression in contrast with coloured uniforms.
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What’s more, for the 10 teams that switched to – or from – black uniforms, the effect was marginally significant as well. Even so, it pays to be cautious here. So many things that go into a referee’s decision in a team sport – from home advantage to the aggression levels of the players themselves – that great care has to be taken into separating those effects. Claudio Gentile would still be Claudio Gentile whether he wore white or black. So would Gary Lineker.
So where does all this lead us? As a major review into 33 studies dealing with the link between colour and sporting performance noted last year, there is a “highly ambiguous pattern of results” in this nascent discipline often due to small sample sizes and questionable research methods. However its conclusion is clear: “The current state of affairs leads us to doubt the possible sway uniform colours have over sport performance and subsequently game outcome.”
And don’t tell Tiger, but the assumed superiority of red looks dead.