Michael Jordan is a longtime NASCAR fan and close friend of driver Denny Hamlin, and now the two are forming a single-car NASCAR Cup Series team together, they announced on Monday night.
The team will have one driver: Bubba Wallace, who has been the rising star of the sport since June, when he successfully pushed NASCAR to ban Confederate flags at all its events. Since then, Wallace has racked up a slew of sponsorships from Square Cash App, Beats By Dre, DoorDash, Kingsford, and Columbia Sportswear.
Wallace has already brought new fans to NASCAR, and Jordan has the same goal.
In his press statement, Jordan said, “I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life... Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for black people in racing.”
Indeed, NASCAR has long had an image of being conservative, Southern, and white. The sport is desperate to attract younger, more diverse fans.
Wallace, currently the only Black driver in the Cup Series, and Jordan, who will be one of only two Black owners in the Cup Series, are the duo that could make it happen.
NASCAR ratings were mostly up at the start of its pandemic return (despite what President Trump tweeted in July), but that was likely due to the dearth of other live sports at that time; ratings for some of this summer’s races have been the lowest NASCAR has seen since 2001.
The sport needs reenergizing.
Wallace has proven adept at attracting sponsors. He has not had as much success on the track in his career, though he has arguably been hampered by racing for a lower-tier team. (Wallace announced earlier this month that he will leave Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of the year; now we know why.) This season has been his best ever, with five top-10 finishes, including finishing 5th at Daytona on Aug. 29.
As Denny Hamlin said in his social media post on Monday, “Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series, and we believe he's ready to take his career to a higher level. He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins, and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that.” (Hamlin will continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.)
Jordan, the majority owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, brings additional star power from a different (and bigger) pro sport. Jordan has not yet had clear success running the Hornets, but look no further than Nike’s Jordan Brand sneaker sales or ESPN’s pandemic ratings for “The Last Dance” for proof of his continued impact.
In 2020, Jordan has proven his commitment to diversity in sports. Jordan Brand will donate $140 million over the next 10 years to organizations promoting racial equality and social justice. Earlier this month, when Jordan joined DraftKings as a strategic advisor to the board, it was no accident that DraftKings mentioned “inclusion, equity and belonging” on its list of areas Jordan will advise the board on: “company strategy, product development, inclusion, equity and belonging, marketing activities and other key initiatives.” (DraftKings is already the official daily fantasy sports partner of NASCAR.)
Jordan put the mission of his NASCAR team in simple, stark terms: “I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.” If Jordan, Wallace, and Hamlin succeed, it will be good for NASCAR’s business.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.