Super Bowl LIV on Sunday in Miami will make history, though it has nothing to do with Patrick Mahomes, Jimmy Garoppolo or any of the other players or coaches on the field. For the first time in the 54-year history of the Super Bowl, Sunday’s Kansas City Chiefs vs. San Francisco 49ers matchup pits two teams that have red as their primary color.
Additionally, the Chiefs and Niners both have a red-and-gold color scheme. They once wore the exact same color red (though today the 49ers’ red is slightly darker than that of the Chiefs). What’s more, the Chiefs owe their logo to the 49ers.
Both teams have played and won their two postseason games in their own red jerseys, but that won’t be the case Sunday. The AFC champion was designated the home team for this Super Bowl, meaning the Chiefs got their choice of jerseys. Kansas City will be in red jerseys and white pants, while the 49ers will be in white jerseys and gold pants.
“Well … that’s a good idea,” said a relieved Leatrice Eiseman, a color expert and author of 10 books on the subject.
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There is a deep history and meaning to the color red, especially in sports. And when you understand its meaning, it comes as no surprise why the Chiefs picked their home jerseys for the biggest game of the season.
This is as evenly matched a Super Bowl as we’ve seen in recent years. Most betting lines have the Chiefs (14-4) as slim one-point favorites over the NFC champion 49ers (15-3).
What’s in a jersey color? Perhaps the slightest of advantages, steeped in tens of thousands of years of human evolution.
What red means
For all of recorded human history, Eiseman says, red has represented activity, assertiveness, blood and bloodshed. Red is aggressive, dynamic and an activity producer.
“There’s never anything reticent or quiet about red,” Eiseman told me by phone while in France on a tour for “More Alive with Color,” her latest book. “And in recent years there’s another buzzword that’s been used. It isn’t just power but empowerment. So that if you adorn yourself in red, if you use red, psychologically that can give you the feeling that you are more powerful.”
Anger and aggression are associated with reddening of the skin, while fear produces a paling effect as blood drains from one’s face. While we understand red can also be symbolic of love, romance and fertility, in the animal kingdom red usually correlates with male dominance.
Russell Hill is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Durham University in the United Kingdom. A trained biologist, Hill has long been interested in what primate behavior can tell us about human evolution and human socialization.
Take, for example, the mandrill. That’s the primate with the beautiful red and blue-colored face that you’ve seen on wildlife television or, better yet, the type of primate Rafiki was in “The Lion King.” For millennia, life on this planet has immediately and readily understood what the color red signifies.
“That bright, intense red coloration is actually present only in dominant male,” Hill said. “If you’re not a dominant male that red color just washes out. It’s a badge of status. If you look across a lot of other mammal species, red is the color. It’s used to signify dominance and aggression in a wide variety of animals.”
(For what it’s worth, the color gold does not have the same background that red does. “It’s probably symbolic, and its value might come from its links to golds and metals and that sort of cultural narrative, but it wouldn’t have any value in the evolutionary context that we’re talking about,” Hill said.)
So it’s no wonder humans could (sub-)consciously choose red in combat sports. As Eiseman said, someone may cloak themselves in red to take on the properties of that color. That association between sports clubs and their color strengthens over time, and fans usually identify with the home colors more.
“Usually it’s, here’s our color, we’re blue. And when you’re at practice you say, ‘Let’s go blue!’ You don’t say, ‘We’re on the road, so let’s go white!'” said professor Mark Frank, chairman of the department of communication at the University of Buffalo. “You’ve got the general hurdle of this is who we are: we’re red, we’re blue, we’re green, we’re black versus, when we’re wearing our roads, we’re still kind of that way even if we don’t look like that.”
A shared history
As legend has it, Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt wanted Columbia blue and orange as the colors of his AFL franchise, which in 1959 was the Dallas Texans. But Bud Adams, owner of the Houston Oilers, laid claim to the blue before Hunt could. Hunt settled on red and gold for his Texans.
In 1963, Hunt moved the Texans to Kansas City. The uniform colors remained the same, but after some convincing he decided not to name the relocated franchise the Kansas City Texans. As the Chiefs, he needed a new helmet logo, which previously had been a white state of Texans with a gold star where Dallas is located on a red helmet.
“Hunt’s inspiration for the interlocking ‘KC’ design was the ‘SF’ inside of an oval on San Francisco’s helmets,” according to the Chiefs’ team website. “Kansas City’s overlapping initials appear inside a white arrowhead instead of an oval and are surrounded by a thin black outline.”
For the next three decades, the two teams even wore the same color red. The Chiefs have always had the more vibrant gold, while the 49ers have worn a more passive gold, but up until 1996 they both wore the same red Kansas City wears today.
That’s when the 49ers surprised their fans on the team’s 50th anniversary by tweaking the red to the deeper, more cardinal red it is today. The overwhelming sentiment from fans and observers alike was this was a chance for the Niners to make millions in revenue despite what fans wanted.
“Forget that it’ll take months, maybe years, before Candlestick Park is swept through with rows of dark red,” wrote staff writer Edvins Beitiks. “You’ll tune into games and see a checkerboard background of reds ranging from the color of a Marlboro pack to the color of old blood.”
Indeed, as recently as last week at Levi’s Stadium for the NFC Championship Game, it was easy to spot the throwback uniforms of the Montana era against today’s gear. Just how similar are they, though?
The Pantone Matching System is the bible for the world of color and design, universally understood as the guide to what color is what. The red the Chiefs wear is PMS 186 C. San Francisco’s red is PMS 187 C.
Being one Pantone color off is as close as you can officially get. Eiseman, the author of 10 books on color, is also the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, and she breaks down the subtle differences of these two reds.
“With these two the only possible distinction is that when you darken a color — and the 49ers color is a little deeper in tone — you actually make that happen by adding black to the color. So you add a little more seriousness of intention,” Eiseman said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be all that different from the Kansas City team. But at the same time I think that is the one distinction, that it has a little bit more depth. And with a little more depth comes a little more focus and intention.
“Now, not to say that the other team doesn’t have focus. I don’t want to put that on them. But if we’re looking at from the standpoint just of the messaging of the color, I think that’s the biggest distinction between the two of them. One is a little more adrenaline pumping and the other is a little bit more thoughtful, if you will.”
What it will look like
Along with the fact that they won’t play this game in two shades of red, the good news Sunday is that red and gold go well together, Eiseman said. Both colors emanate heat, and that’s a positive because warmer colors will come to your eye more quickly.
Of course, the Chiefs’ gold is more yellow than San Francisco’s. (Kansas City’s gold is PMS 1235 C and San Francisco’s is PMS 872 C.) That will also grab the viewer’s attention.
“With one being a little brighter and a little bit more yellow, that is more closely aligned to what the eye sees first,” Eiseman said. “So it may make their uniforms pop a little more because the value of the color is brighter. So when you’re looking on them on the field, the first uniforms you may recognize — if people aren’t colorblind — they’re going to see the Kansas City uniforms as a bit more adrenaline pumping. A bit more activity and dynamism.”
Kathryn Sturm agrees. A graphic designer in Cincinnati, Sturm notes the studies of red cars being pulled over more by police for speeding because they look faster. The Chiefs will look faster on Sunday not only because of their red jerseys, but also because the lighter bottom.
The colors in this game may make the graphic design around Super Bowl LIV more difficult though. Sturm says because red vibrates off the screen so much, having two reds just one Pantone color off will be tough to handle.
“I would also say if they have the true logos, which have similarities in color, I would mount them on a white or plain background so you can really see the difference between them versus getting them too close together,” Sturm said.
Undoubtedly the worst clashing will happen in the stands of Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday night. The majority of fans of either team will likely opt for the home colors to prove their allegiance.
“It’ll be awful,” Sturm laughed. “And I’m sure the fans won’t be thrilled either. Half the fun is knowing who’s on what team, which will be harder to differentiate. Also, players finding their supporters in the seats, too. It’ll be a very vibrant game for sure.”
Does red actually help?
Multiple studies conducted during the past 40 years have concluded that uniform color can actually have an impact on games and their outcomes.
In 1988, Mark Frank and Thomas Gilovich published a paper called “The dark side of self- and social perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports.” The study found that NFL and NHL teams that wore black uniforms ranked near the top of their respective leagues in penalties. And that when non-black teams switched to black uniforms, they began getting penalized more.
Furthermore, two lab experiments indicated it could be attributed to social perception and self-perception, which is the theory that we are unsure of our own behavior and so we begin to judge ourselves as if we were judging someone else.
“I knew a couple of guys who played pro football who would say the Raiders always seemed easier in their whites,” Frank says.
Russell Hill and Robert Barton read that 1988 paper when they studied whether red enhances performance in contests. They observed the contestants of four combat sports (boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling) at the 2004 Summer Olympics, all of whom were randomly assigned either red or blue outfits. In the hundreds of bouts across the four competitions, they found the contestant in red won more by a statistically significant margin. Sixteen of the 21 rounds have more red than blue winners, while only four rounds had more blue winners.
A follow-up study done by another group took video of taekwondo athletes engaged in competition with an experienced panel of judges scoring it. The group then digitally altered the video to switch the athletes’ colors from red to blue. The judges awarded more points to the athlete in red both times despite the video being the same.
So we have evidence that color can change the perception of those judging a contest. We know humans perceive those in red as more aggressive and dominant. And there are self-reported studies of people feeling more confident when wearing red.
“What we know from those primate examples linked to that red coloration is higher levels of testosterone that is often involved in these competitive encounters,” Hill said. “And we know that male sports teams playing at home go onto the field with higher levels of testosterone than when they’re playing away from home. It primes the body for competition.
“The evidence is less clear — in fact there’s no clear evidence — that wearing red influences your physiological preparedness in that way. It clearly has a psychological impact, but it’s much more difficult to test these physiological responses. As it stands at the moment, nobody’s been able to find evidence that I would be confident in claiming is irrefutable.”
Do the Chiefs ultimately have an advantage?
Frank, the godfather of studies related to the impact of uniform colors on game outcomes, is asked if all things are equal, does the team with the red top and white pants have an advantage over the team in the white top and gold pants.
“Let’s see. How do I word this? Yes, but it’s just tiny,” Frank said. “It’s got a slight advantage, but one ill-timed fumble wipes out that advantage. One ill-timed pass. One arm being hit while thrown will probably override whatever advantage that would be.”
Hill agrees, and he does so while painting a picture of Sunday night.
“The way we would probably expect it to operate anyway is not the buildup to the game but on the field itself … athletes on the line of scrimmage, in opposition of another. They very much are facing one another as the ball is snapped,” Hill said. “I think in those particular contexts where it could have an impact on the San Francisco players, those athletes all looking at athletes dressed in red, each of whom is displaying this color that has this evolutionary association with power and dominance.
“It’s in that particular context and in those very fine margins that we expect it to have a difference. If it just takes one or two percent off the degree that these players go into impact, the energy that they put into it, and these games are fine margins, that can be enough to tip the balance between winning and losing.”
Considering all this, perhaps the most fascinating is this: In the 2019 season, both the Chiefs and the 49ers had a lower winning percentage in red jerseys than their whites. San Francisco went 8-2 in red and 7-1 in white, while Kansas City was 8-3 in red and 6-1 in white. The 49ers went 2-0 against teams in red (and the Chiefs did not face a team wearing red jerseys this season.)
And though this is the first Super Bowl between two red-dominant teams, it obviously isn’t the first featuring one team in red jerseys. There have been 10 Super Bowls with a team in a red jersey, and that team has had a 5-5 record in the big game.
Despite what appears to be contradictory evidence to the thesis, these results don’t surprise Hill at all.
“If it was 500-500, I’d have to say well actually that’s pretty strong evidence there’s nothing going on,” Hill said. “At the end of this we’re going to have 6-5 in one direction. We only really found a 5 percent difference in winning probabilities across hundreds of bouts in the Olympics. That 6-5 is 10% in the favor of one of those two colors.
“In some respects I would actually say 5-5 is exactly what I’d expect. It’s a subtle affect, and on any given day other factors will come into play as well.”