Can Michael Jordan Make NASCAR Cool?

can-michael-jordan-make-nascar-cool?

It’s been an unusually hectic few months for Paul Sparrow, NASCAR’s managing director of consumer products. Ever since Michael Jordan entered the sport as the co-owner of 23XI Racing, Sparrow’s phone has been ringing off the hook with people clamoring for one thing: merch.

“I’ve taken numerous calls every day asking me, ‘When’s the product coming? When’s the product coming?” says Sparrow.

In December, 23XI finally gave the fans what they wanted, announcing on Twitter that it had released its first batch of shirts and hoodies. Less than five minutes later, inventory had sold out.

“The future for them is just stunningly bright,” says Sparrow, who notes that the successful merch drop was a clear indication of 23XI’s potential not only as a racing team but as a larger brand.

Jordan’s new initiative is creating something like a perfect storm for NASCAR merch: the guy responsible for the most popular sneaker line of all time is getting into a new business. The team added to its appeal by signing up Bubba Wallace, one of the sport’s brightest stars and currently NASCAR’s only Black driver. Wallace’s social activism and support of Black Lives Matter last year made national headlines, earning him a whole new set of fans beyond the usual NASCAR crowd.

Bubba Wallace rocking a mask that should be familiar to Air Jordan fans.

Sean Gardner

According to Sparrow, the combination of Jordan and Wallace has led to a surge of interest in NASCAR, attracting new fans and demographics — fans who, perhaps unlike traditional NASCAR enthusiasts, “lead with fashion.” As a result, Sparrow says 23XI undoubtedly will be taking a fashion-forward approach in the months ahead.

Car culture and style, after all, have gone hand in hand for decades, dating back to Steve McQueen in the late ’60s. But in modern times, motorsports fashion has turned into a relatively niche market dominated by PUMA, which officially partnered with Formula One teams in the early 2000s to produce a full line of streetwear for prominent brands like Ferrari and Mercedes, including the Speedcat sneaker collection. While certainly popular with racing enthusiasts, PUMA’s gear is likely foreign territory for most Jordan fans.

“None of the big sports brands were in motorsports, and we always tried to do things differently,” says Anja Egger, PUMA’s head of business unit marketing motorsport. “Nowadays there is a much bigger blend between the track — the design language of motorsports — fusing with streetwear, with the cutlines being more fashionable, graphics more engaging, and speaking to a younger audience.”

Egger admits that 23XI has an undeniable appeal and could help give NASCAR the jolt it needs to become a more prominent and trendier player in motorsports fashion.

“I can really see this changing,” she says. “NASCAR has been quite white, male, Midwestern American, and hasn’t really branched out to urban centers on the west or east coasts. With a player like Jordan, and the recent PR around Bubba Wallace and Black Lives Matter, it’s all positive for NASCAR to get rid of their dusty image and reach the wider public.”

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Jordan Brand, the Nike subsidiary based around MJ and his iconic Jumpman logo. Although Jordan Brand has not yet officially partnered with 23XI Racing, industry experts think it’s only a matter of time before Jordan’s fashion brand hops on board with his NASCAR team.

“When it comes to merchandise, this would be a great way for Nike to extend its brand,” says Dae Hee Kwak, the director of the Center for Sport Marketing Research at the University of Michigan. He points out that Jordan Brand has been branching out into a variety of sports outside of basketball in recent years, including golf, soccer, and even a bit of NASCAR by sponsoring Denny Hamlin, 23XI’s co-owner.

“If you think about their brand portfolio, it might be the right time to expand more into motorsports,” he says. “Nike is always very good at projecting consumption, so I’m sure they’re studying the data and doing a lot of calculations right now.”

For Brent James, the founder and chief creative officer of footwear consulting firm Concept 21, Nike and 23XI Racing are a perfect fit.

“Without question it’d be huge for Nike to use motorsports inspiration to build a different kind of product,” he says. James was one of Nike’s early employees in the late ’70s and has consulted for the brand numerous times since then. He points to the Air Jordan 4 “Motorsports” as an example of where the company could turn its attention. This rare sneaker, now popular with collectors, came out in the early 2000s to coincide with MJ’s purchase of a motorcycle team — his first foray into racing.

“If I were there, a small collection based around Bubba would be the perfect thing to do,” he says. “I could think right now of a bunch of products that would be fun to work on.”

A familiar sight: #23 in Carolina blue.

Chris Graythen

James says that Nike also could potentially use 23XI Racing as a vehicle to revamp NASCAR’s entire look, creating more aesthetically pleasing fire suits—similar to how the company overhauled NFL uniforms in recent years.

“NASCAR should be listening carefully,” he says. “Without question, they should be doing everything humanly possible to make Jordan and that entire group happy, and maybe even ask them: how, visually, could we change things? It’d be a great opportunity for them.”

PUMA’s Egger says that she has indeed heard rumblings of Jordan Brand and Nike’s potential involvement in 23XI. The rival sneaker executive welcomes the competition.

“Of course, we don’t want Nike to suddenly start invading our space,” she says, “but it’s also a matter of awareness. The bigger awareness the general public has of motorsports, the better it is for all of us.”

As for NASCAR, Sparrow says plans are in the works to explore completely new types of apparel, including an emphasis on women’s lines and potential forays into sneakers and specialty headwear. Although 23XI Racing is still in its early stages—this is its first season, and it’s only competed in a handful of races so far— Sparrow is encouraged by the new fans it’s attracting and what it could mean for NASCAR’s standing in motorsports fashion.

“The new fans that are coming to the sport give us an entirely different point of view when it comes to products, almost like a blank check to go out and develop new things that maybe the sport wasn’t focused on,” he says. “The 2021 season…is giving us the freedom to go and do things that we normally wouldn’t have done, and fashion apparel is going to be right up at the front of it.”

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