The white flag is the sign of defeat in battle. The white towel thrown in the boxing ring conveys the same message. Yet lighter colors, especially white, are actually the mark of champions in almost every sport. For example, 83 percent of the winners after the group stage at the World Cup in Brazil wore lighter colors than their opponents.
This is neither an anomaly nor a coincidence. Instead it reveals a deciding factor in all team sports that, funnily enough, is recognized but not seen. This factor provides surprising insight into the phenomenon of “home-field advantage” and how subtle physical advantages rooted in physics often mean the difference in closely contested matches.
Teams are required to wear different colors so they can be distinguished with ease by teammates, referees, and spectators. Red and green are distinct, and so are white and green. Yet, distinct colors are not equal in the eyes and minds of the players. The lighter colors are easier to see because light colors reflect more light than darker ones. This is an advantage, helping teams be united and in sync with the flow of the game.
Because it is the lightest color, white is also most visible. This is why the conquered raise the white flag – when the life or death stakes couldn’t be higher, they want to make sure their opponents see their signal.
On most sports fields, green is the least visible color: it is dark and easy to confuse with the grass. Lack of visibility and contrast is a disadvantage to players who must be in constant communication, to flow as one continuous fluid in the game.
The competition between colors is binary: one lighter against one darker. The score after the group stage in this year’s World Cup stands at 10-2 in favor of the lighter.
This same phenomenon happens in all team sports, called home field advantage. Through comprehensive historic research, Toby Moscowitz and Jon Wertheim, authors of the book “Scorecasting,” confirmed that home teams enjoy a distinct advantage. In major league baseball the home teams have won about 54 percent of the time since 1903; in the NFL the home team has won 57 percent of games since 1966. The long-term winning percentages for other sports: NHL (56 percent); NBA (61.5 percent); MLS (69 percent).
Many widely acknowledged factors contribute to this: visitors are not only battling their opponents but travel fatigue, hostile crowds, unfamiliar playing conditions, and biased referees. Less noticed is the fact that the home team picks which color uniform it will wear – if it chooses light uniforms, its opponent must go dark, and vice-versa. Historically, the home team in most sports (except football) wore lighter colors and for many teams that color was white. This is partly explained by mythology – good guys wear white hats, the forces of light versus dark, and so on. But that mythology, and the unwitting decision of uniform designers, also reflects the advantage provide by lighter.
The precise contribution of uniform color is hard to measure. We can get some sense of it when we recognize that all the familiar explanations of home field advantage are essentially the same for every sport. However, the sports that rely the most on teamwork (e.g. precision passing and coordination) – basketball and soccer – have the highest rate of home field advantage. The sport that requires the least amount of teamwork – baseball – has the smallest home field advantage. (Though it is no accident that the ball is white.)
In closely contested matches between equally talented opponents, small advantages can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Often these advantages stem not just from training and hard-work but biology and physics.
For example, research shows that, everything else being equal, taller, sprinters with long legs will defeat their shorter opponents because their bodies fall from a greater height – as Galileo showed objects gain speed as they fall. Similarly, swimmers with long torsos will defeat those with shorter torsos because the longer torso rises higher above the water, and falls faster and further forward.
For fast-flowing team sports like soccer, vision and cognition are as crucial to success as speed and conditioning. In soccer, where scoring chances are rare, the ability to spot your teammate a split second faster can mean the difference between a thread-the-needle pass for a goal or another just-miss.