- Michael Jordan announced he’s joining drivers Bubba Wallace and Denny Hamlin to field a single-car NASCAR team starting in the 2021 season.
- According to a sports marketing professor, Dr. Brett Boyle, a marketing professor at Saint Louis University, Jordan’s impact could result in PGA Tour success with Tiger Woods.
On Monday night, the sports world was buzzing when news broke that Jordan was entering into a partnership with NASCAR racer Denny Hamlin, currently ranked second in the Cup Series championship standings with seven races remaining. Those two have purchased a team charter from Germain Racing to field cars for Bubba Wallace, who will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at season’s end. The details of car number, sponsor, crew, etc. are all TBD. But the charter guarantees them a starting spot in the Cup Series field every weekend, and a technical alliance with Hamlin’s employer, Joe Gibbs Racing, guarantees equipment produced by NASCAR’s current dynasty-builder.
So, how did Hamlin, Jordan and Wallace end up together? It started back in 2006. That’s when Jordan became an investor in the still-new Charlotte Bobcats. The Jack Nicholson of the Bobcats was Hamlin, a NASCAR wunderkind who won two races during his first full-time Cup Series season and was a self-described “basketball junkie” who sat courtside at the NBA team’s sparkling new arena. In ’06, Jordan and Hamlin formed a friendship that has continued to this day. They started playing golf. Hamlin began sporting the Jumpman logo on his firesuits, wearing custom-made Jordan-branded racing shoes and, on occasion, bringing Jordan to the racetrack as his guest.
“All the while, I have worked really hard to convince my friends from the NBA and Black corporate CEOs to invest in NASCAR, but it was always a really difficult sale,” Daugherty said in June. “If I could get them to the racetrack, they would always love it. But they would also see Confederate flags and they would see no Black drivers. So why would they want to invest in that? They would tell me that if those things changed, then maybe one day they would be on board.”
Jordan is both an NBA legend and a corporate CEO, and his reservations when it came to investing in NASCAR were exactly what Daugherty ran into with all the others. Jordan had also done his homework on NASCAR racing as investment, looking at previous efforts across all levels of stock car racing, backed at varying degrees of involvement by everyone from Randy Moss and Brett Favre to Julius Erving and Joe Washington to Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. Some of those teams had success, but all ultimately failed. And that doesn’t include the list of teams that never got off the ground, announced by the likes of Tim Brown, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the Wayans brothers.
So what was different about now? What was the missing ingredient to the recipe that convinced Michael Jordan to write a check to go stock car racing?
The answer is Darrell Wallace Jr., who has spent the 2020 Cup Series season on an upward trajectory of public recognition like nothing NASCAR has ever seen. He has battled bigotry — he called for a ban on Confederate flags at tracks, and NASCAR listened — while also battling for top-10 finishes as a driver for poor-but-proud Richard Petty Motorsports. Over the past two months, Wallace has accrued multiple personal sponsorship deals worth millions of dollars and repeatedly hinted about an impending new opportunity for 2021 and beyond.
“Michael always gave me a hard time, too, about being a hillbilly and all of that. But you know what? He would also sit there and watch with me. He liked it. He always did.” Brad Daugherty on Michael Jordan
Now that deal is official, the culmination of multiple men on multiple roads, planning to walk down pit road together at Daytona in February. There’s a lot to do between now and then for a team with zero employees and zero race cars. But the lack of all that is made up for by an abundance of enthusiasm from His Airness.
On Monday, Jordan announced his racing ownership after the purchase of Germain Racing’s team charter. Jordan is the first Black majority owner of a full-time racing team in the NASCAR series since legendary driver Wendell Scott.
Longtime driver Denny Hamlin is a minority owner of the unnamed single-car team, and Wallace agreed to become the team’s driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. Terms of Jordan’s purchase and Wallace’s multiyear pact were not made available.
“You saw younger people get interested in golf,” Boyle said, referring to PGA Tour’s diverse fan growth when Woods dominated the sport.
“When somebody sees somebody like them in a sport, then they start thinking about themselves playing that sport,” said Boyle. “This may increase minority interest in [NASCAR].”
Boyle said Jordan’s move could be critical for NASCAR as the organization continues to overcome denouncing the confederate flag and continued attempts to diversify its fan base.
“They’ve been struggling for about 20 years to expand beyond just Southern white males,” said Boyle, also the executive director of SportMetric, a sports marketing and research consultancy firm.
“To have Michael Jordan’s brand and his personality behind a team, I think it’s going to draw not only younger fans but also African-American and other minority groups,” he said.
In a press release announcing the move, Jordan expressed excitement in becoming a NASCAR team owner and mentioned its struggle with diversity.
“The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change,” following the death of George Floyd on in May, Jordan said.
Wallace was the key figure behind NASCAR’s move to ban the confederate flag. In June, he sent shockwaves through the sport after requesting officials stop spectators from bringing the flag to races.
Wallace, who recently parted ways with Richard Petty Motorsports before joining Jordan, became the face of NASCAR’s movement to combat social injustices and helped grow awareness of the sport.
NASCAR has suffered steady TV viewership declines over the years and suffered departures of notable drivers including Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. It drew more than 6 million viewers to its Darlington race in May won by driver Kevin Harvick but has still struggled as consumption habits change.
With a prominent Black driver in place, mixed with a notable sports icon and one who carries with him a “degree of credibility in that he’s from North Carolina and has grown up a NASCAR fan,” Boyle labeled Jordan-Hamlin-Wallace team “a game-changer” in NASCAR’s pursuit to expand.
If successful, Boyle said Jordan’s impact would also “bring in new sponsors that have not invested in NASCAR” in previous years.
Jordan already has brand relationships in place via top companies, including his Jordan brand, Nike, Pepsi, which owns Gatorade, and now DraftKings, too. That could only help his NASCAR team solicit other sponsorships.
One person familiar with NASCAR’s plans who spoke with CNBC said Jordan’s new team “checks a lot of boxes” for sponsors looking to align with social change. The person discussed the matter on the condition of remaining anonymous as they weren’t allowed to speak publicly about the new team.
“If you’re a corporation, wouldn’t you want to support Michael Jordan and Bubba Wallace as they try to promote positive change?” the person said. “What better thing can you invest in?”
To field a competitive car in NASCAR, yearly costs could exceed $20 million. Sponsorships can help as building a top car can run $400,000 or more. Between paying for a crew, travel, tires and other vehicle maintenance, a team could spend $1 million per race. Boyle said the yearly costs could even reach $30 million.
But Boyle mentioned Jordan’s competitive nature when discussing why funding wouldn’t be an issue.
“If you know anything about Michael Jordan as a business person, he doesn’t just go for the cash grab or go for something that is going to put his name out there,” said Boyle. “He would only do a project like this with the intention of winning.”
Also, Boyle projected top brands would be “first in line to be a sponsor of [Jordan’s] team. When he endorses a product, he’s very loyal to that product. I would imagine that loyalty is going to be returned.”
Money aside, to those familiar with the inner-workings of NASCAR, Hamlin will be essential to Jordan and Wallace’s quest to dominate the sport. Hamlin, who currently races the No. 11 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, brings a ton of knowledge and racing expertise.
Hamlin’s minority ownership in the team while racing with Gibbs shouldn’t come with any conflict, either. The agreement was compared to legendary driver Dale Earnhardt’s decision to start his team – DEI racing team – while still racing for Richard Childress Racing.
And Hamlin will be needed to recruit crew talent and navigate the regulations and politics of NASCAR for Jordan’s team.
“It just makes sense now to lay the foundation for my racing career after I’m done driving and also help an up-and-coming driver like Bubba take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “Plus, Michael and Bubba can be a powerful voice together, not only in our sport, but also well beyond it.”
But forming a NASCAR team will bring its challenges. Unlike the NBA, Jordan isn’t king of this sport and will run up against more experienced and knowledgeable teams.
Competing against the Childress, Roger Penske, and Rick Hendrick-led teams will “take time,” said Boyle. But with Jordan’s iconic status, attracting crew talent may not be a difficult task.
“I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” said Jordan in an interview with the Charlotte Observer. “I feel like Bubba feels the same, and Denny has definitely done that this year. We’ve got the right people involved. Now, we need to get the right equipment. The right information and data. Give Bubba his best chance to win.”
WHO IS MICHAEL JORDAN
Michael Jordan IS THE “GOAT”
Michael Jeffrey Jordan (born February 17, 1963), also known by his initials MJ, is a former American professional basketball player and the principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets of the National Basketball Association (NBA). He played 15 seasons in the NBA, winning six championships with the Chicago Bulls. His biography on the official NBA website states: “By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.” He was integral in helping to popularize the NBA around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a global cultural icon in the process.
Jordan played college basketball for three seasons under coach Dean Smith with the North Carolina Tar Heels. As a freshman, he was a member of the Tar Heels’ national championship team in 1982. Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984 as the third overall draft pick, and quickly emerged as a league star, entertaining crowds with his prolific scoring while gaining a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive players. His leaping ability, demonstrated by performing slam dunks from the free throw line in Slam Dunk Contests, earned him the nicknames “Air Jordan” and “His Airness”. Jordan won his first NBA championship with the Bulls in 1991, and followed that achievement with titles in 1992 and 1993, securing a “three-peat“. Jordan abruptly retired from basketball before the 1993–94 NBA season to play Minor League Baseball, but returned to the Bulls in March 1995 and led them to three more championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998, as well as a then-record 72 regular-season wins in the 1995–96 NBA season. He retired for a second time in January 1999 but returned for two more NBA seasons from 2001 to 2003 as a member of the Washington Wizards.
Jordan’s individual accolades and accomplishments include six NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards, ten scoring titles (both all-time records), five MVP Awards, ten All-NBA First Team designations, nine All-Defensive First Team honors, fourteen NBA All-Star Game selections, three All-Star Game MVP Awards, three steals titles, and the 1988 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. He holds the NBA records for career regular season scoring average (30.12 points per game) and career playoff scoring average (33.45 points per game). In 1999, he was named the 20th century’s greatest North American athlete by ESPN, and was second to Babe Ruth on the Associated Press‘ list of athletes of the century. Jordan was twice inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, once in 2009 for his individual career and again in 2010 as part of the 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team (“The Dream Team”). He became a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2015.
One of the most effectively marketed athletes of his generation, Jordan is also known for his product endorsements. He fueled the success of Nike‘s Air Jordan sneakers, which were introduced in 1984 and remain popular today. Jordan also starred as himself in the 1996 film Space Jam. He became part-owner and head of basketball operations for the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) in 2006, and bought a controlling interest in 2010. In 2014, Jordan became the first billionaire player in NBA history. With a net worth of $2.1 billion, he is the fourth-richest African American, behind Robert F. Smith, David Steward, and Oprah Winfrey.