Team Color Theory: Decorating Team Apparel

Kristine Shreve is the Director of Marketing for EnMart and parent company Ensign Emblem. She developed and writes two blogs—the EnMart Threaducuate blog and the SubliStuff blog. Shreve also maintains the EnMart Twitter account and Facebook page. She can be reached via email at kristine.shreve@myenmart.com

When you decorate, it’s all about color. And, often, color matters most when you’re dealing with team logo wear. Is your jersey the correct Cardinal Red? Is the M on your hat really the proper maize to show your support of the University of Michigan? We know how closely teams and institutions guard their color choices. But, in the end, does it really matter that much if the colors used are close, but not exact, or if you use exact colors but not the team or school logo?

When it comes to team apparel, at least on the college level, precise color does matter. Many schools have chosen their colors to reflect a particular idea or theme, and displaying support for the team and their underlying message requires displaying those exact colors.

Many universities even have style guides detailing what colors may be used when depicting their logos or school name. The University of Michigan style guide, for instance, gives precise PMS (Pantone Matching System) numbers for the primary maize and blue logo and even goes so far as to list secondary colors, and then to detail colors to be used for printed pieces and for websites. Similar information exists online for Michigan State, Harvard, the University of California and many other schools. Getting the colors right obviously matters... but so does when and how those colors are used.

Colors matter

When it comes to professional sports teams, logo colors, and the precise use of them, is a big business. You can buy thousands of items with the team logo, countless types of team apparel, and even paint a room in the officially licensed colors of your favorite team.

If you are looking for information on the correct colors for a professional sports team, your first resource may well be a site currently called ColorWerx (formerly The Society for Sports Uniform Research) which lists team colors, both historical and current, for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse and other miscellaneous sports. This site lists both men’s and women’s leagues, and includes international leagues as well.

The only thing this site doesn’t list is Pantone numbers. The site gives color swatches for the teams, but precise Pantone information is closely guarded. Production of products using the team logo and colors is generally done under a licensing agreement, so information that would allow unlicensed vendors to produce accurate logoed gear is not generally available, although it can be found under certain circumstances.

If you do come across this information, you should definitely consider whether or not to use it. Teams can be aggressive about protecting their logos. (For an interesting discussion of trademark law as it applies to sports teams, you should read the brief on the subject titled “May the Best Merchandise Win” from the Marquette Sports Law Review.)

The colors a university or professional team uses in their logo and uniforms clearly matter to the organizations in question, and perhaps even to the fans and supporters of those teams and organizations, but the big question is why. Why are organizations and fans so passionate about getting the colors just right? Why do some color schemes become so instantly recognizable that anything using those colors seems to represent the team or organization? Why does it matter so much?

The psychology of color

The meaning of colors in college and sports logo wear is subject to some debate. The use of color when it comes to team apparel can impact how a team or institution is seen, and influence feelings about said team or organization. One example is found in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1988. The study proved that National Hockey League (NHL) and National Football League (NFL) teams that wore uniforms where black was 50 percent or more of the uniform color were penalized more than players wearing uniforms in other colors who performed the same actions.
Because people tend to see black as the color that evil-doers wear, officials were statistically shown to be biased toward assuming that players on teams with predominately black uniforms were more aggressive and more likely to transgress and commit penalties. Teams that wore uniforms in which black was one of the dominating colors were also thought to be more aggressive and dangerous. So, if you want to give your team the appearance of being mad, bad, and dangerous to know, black is apparently the color of choice.

Red and blue with accents of white, or a patriotic color scheme, is another theme that pops up a lot in team uniforms. The Sports Design Blog did a study to see which colors were most predominant in Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), and NFL team logos. The theory was that the MLB would use patriotic colors (white, red and blue) more than teams in other sports, given that baseball is known as “America’s pastime.”

Sure enough, the study showed that 33 percent of MLB teams used a red and blue color scheme, as opposed to 12.5 percent in the NFL, and 20 percent in the NBA. The study also showed that the NFL is the most adventurous when it comes to color, with 78 percent of teams in the league having a color scheme that no other team has, compared to 43 percent of teams in the NBA and 33 percent of MLB teams. (You can view the entire post at www.thesportsdesignblog.com/2011/05/17/team-colors-by-sport/.)

Message and meaning

Anyone who’s designed any sort of logo or worked with decoration of any kind knows that color matters. As noted, red, white, and blue can bring up patriotic feelings. Black can make your team seem more aggressive, even if they aren’t. So what does it mean if your team’s color scheme is gray and blue or red and white?

Colors have meaning and, while some organizations probably picked their team colors simply because they looked nice together, others most likely did some research into color psychology before making their choices. Different colors can mean different things, so logo colors can actually say a lot, whether or not the organization intended it that way.

Orange, for instance, is considered a happy color, so the University of Tennessee’s students must be cheerful and optimistic when they see their school colors. Green is the color of nature, which makes it a perfect choice for the Michigan State University logo, since Michigan State began in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan. Those who attend Clemson University are apparently wallowing in happiness (orange) and luxury (purple) if you go by the colors of their school logo. Smith College, an all-female college, uses a predominately white logo, white being the color of purity and innocence. You have to wonder if, back in 1871 when Smith College was founded, someone was trying to make a point when they created the logo.

So, it’s no secret that color plays a huge part in team sports on both the professional and college level, and, on the college level, has meaning in other associations and organizations, such as sororities and fraternities. There is so much potential in this arena, but it’s imperative that you know exactly what colors you’re getting into.