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Dressing to Look a Certain Way: Athletes and Jersey Numbers

Sometimes athletes choose a certain jersey number in an attempt to influence how their physical size is perceived. Research suggests it may actually work.

Why do athletes choose a certain jersey number? Sometimes it might just be a superstition. Maybe it's their birthday, like Sidney Crosby #87 born on 8/7/87. Sometimes athletes are paying homage to their heroes (David Beckham chose the same number as Michael Jordan, #23), or their rivals (Mario Lemieux chose #66 because it was the mirror of Wayne Gretzky's #99). Occasionally it's in service of a really good pun, like in the case of Shawn Heins, #57. But what if the number you wear influences how you're perceived on the ice/court/field?

A 2023 study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), sought to test whether the number on a jersey significantly influenced how the size of an American football player was perceived. Researchers enlisted 37 subjects who were shown cartoon football players with varying body sizes and wore jerseys numbered between 1-19 or 80-89. They were then asked to rank the athletes on a five-point scale from "very slender" to "very husky". Even when numbers were matched to take up the same amount of visual space, i.e. comparing a player wearing #18 versus #81, the "observers perceived athletes with low jersey numbers as more slender compared to athletes with high numbers."

The experiment was partially inspired by a recent migration of pass receivers in football from jersey numbers 80-89 in favour of numbers 10-19. While previously they were required to wear a number in the 80s—unless they were all taken—in 2004 the National Football League changed the rules to allow receivers to sport a number in the teens or the 80s. By 2019, 79% of receivers were donning a number starting with a one.

The UCLA researchers hypothesize that "this effect results from learned associations between numbers and size attributes of objects in daily life." Basically, when we see objects with numbers on them in our everyday lives, the number is often proportional to the size of the object, whether it's a bag of flour stating how heavy it is, a saw blade showing its size or weights labelled with their mass.

Another interesting aspect of this study is that it was done in two halves. The first took place during the COVID-19 lockdowns and was completed by participants in their own homes, whereas the second was done in a laboratory setting. Results did not differ significantly between the two settings.

The NHL might not have as many rules about what jersey number a player can wear, but that doesn't mean it's immune to these same effects. When Mikael Backlund, currently a center with the Calgary Flames, played for general manager Darryl Sutter in 2010, he was given jersey #11, despite asking for #8 or #19. Backlund says Sutter wanted him to seem taller with the vertical numbers. More recently, James van Riemsdyk and then Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello picked #25 as his new number, to make him look bigger.


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