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The Complicated World of Sports Numbers on Jerseys

Miami Dolphins' players wearing their away jerseys on the sidelines.

One thing that has become as synonymous with your favorite player’s name, is their number. While it’s probably something you’ve never given much thought to, jersey numbers have quite the history to them and there are a number of different guidelines for each sport. Many sports have rules about who can wear which numbers, and it’s interesting to see the differences between sports.

Anything goes in baseball

While it’s unknown where and when the system of numbers started in the world of professional sports, we know that the MLB was one of the first leagues to normalize them – even with a somewhat tumultuous beginning.

The Cleveland Indians first debuted numbers on their players’ jerseys in 1916, but the players complained and the organization got rid of them. Other teams tried after that but they all got the same reaction.

The Indians tried again in 1929 and, that time, it stuck. A decade later, the rest of the league had followed suit. Interestingly, baseball teams began numbering in the order of their lineup, e.g. Babe Ruth wore number 3 because he was third up to bat. Nice and simple.

Football: the sport with all the rules

In the NFL, players have been wearing numbers since the league’s founding in 1920. Their system is a little more complicated than baseball; while the numbers range from 1-99, only certain positions can claim certain numbers.

For example, offensive linemen can only have numbers 60-79. The purpose of this is to easily identify what role each player has at a quick glance.

Basketball keeps things simple

Like baseball, basketball players don’t have any designated ranges of numbers that they have to wear depending on their position. The interesting thing here is that the NBA uses more numbers between 0-5 than they do 6-9.

This is because, in the NCAA, most schools do the same because it’s easier to hold up numbers on one hand to refer to a player on the court. Most players in the NBA keep their college numbers when they go pro, hence the tradition carrying over in the professional world.

Hockey goes with the flow

Hockey has no formal rules behind their numbering, but they’ve got traditions. Goalies and back-up goalies traditionally wear number 1 and a number near 30, respectively. Everyone else wears any other number, with players wearing more high numbers more recently. This is due to teams retiring numbers as years go on, and many older teams wore a lot of single digits back in the day.

Soccer gets a little complicated

Depending on what country you’re in, the numbers on soccer jerseys may mean different things. In the United States, soccer numbers coordinate with what position a player is. For example, number 1 is for the goalie, number 5 is a center half, and number 10 is the playmaking midfielder.

In other countries, they sometimes organize positions differently and it shakes things up on the field. While we would never expect to see a number 1 playing outside of the goal in the U.S., it may be more normal elsewhere.

While we all know our favorite players’ numbers by heart, the reason sports numbers on jerseys exist is to simplify things. When you’re sitting in the announcer’s booth, calling out plays as they happen, it’s much easier to glance at a number on a jersey versus trying to read someone’s long name while they’re running down a court.

The next time you wear a player’s jersey, think about how many different rules and traditions went into their specific number on that jersey!