Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
The touchdown, watched live by 22.4 million people, is quickly dubbed one of the greatest catches of all time. Clips of the moment dominate the American news cycle. Google the player's name — Odell Beckham Jr. — and this catch is the primary image result. In the photos, Beckham's face is obscured almost entirely by his helmet.
Out of all major American sports leagues, NFL games are the most highly watched. The Super Bowl consistently breaks viewership records; 114.4 million people tuned in to January's Patriots-Seahawks spectacle. (A meager 23 million viewers watched the biggest game of the 2015 NBA Finals, for comparison.) Advertisers are willing to pony up to $4.5 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, adding to the impressive $7.24 billion — yes, billion with a ‘B' — the league garnered in 2014. Major brands are willing to throw serious cash at advertising around the sport, but its players aren't often used as vehicles for the message. That's changing, however, and fashion is playing a sudden, if surprising, role.
NBA superstars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have long enjoyed fashion's embrace. Cleveland Cavaliers forward James appeared on the April 2008 cover of Vogue, while Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook nabbed a high-end partnership with Barneys, and Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade has his name on $20,000 watches for Hublot. Basketball players are more exposed by the nature of their sport's uniform, which allows their tattoos, hair styles and piercings to stand out. Contrast this with the NFL's uniforms, which envelope the player almost entirely, casting them as anonymous members of a team. "The NFL has a martial aspect to it," SB Nation NFL editor Ryan van Bibber says. "Players come in, carry out their assignments in relative anonymity, and go home until the next practice. That’s a pretty widespread expectation from a lot of coaches."
Peyton Manning shills for Gatorade, while Carmelo Anthony fronts for Bergdorfs.
A recognizable face is more attractive to brands for endorsement deals, an area where football players fall surprisingly short. When ranked by endorsement money, it isn't until spot number 21 on the 2015 Forbes list of the world's highest-paid athletes that an NFL player emerges. That rung belongs to Peyton Manning, who has shilled most recently for DirecTV, Gatorade, and Nationwide. With endorsement earnings of $12 million, the Broncos quarterback ranks behind tennis icon Serena Williams, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, and a quartet of easy-to-identify basketball stars: James, Bryant, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant. While Manning sells sports drinks and premium TV packages, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony fronts for Zegna and Bergdorf Goodman. "The effect fashion, and more importantly style, has had on the NBA as a league and its players is undeniable," Rachel Johnson, the stylist for New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the NBA's LeBron James, tells Racked. "There are a select few NFL pros who are taking note and want to adopt similar strategies."
"Smart players take advantage of other business opportunities and ownership of their image and personal brand," says van Bibber. "The average NFL career is three and a half years, and player contracts aren’t fully guaranteed the way they are for other sports," he furthers. "Picking an agent used to be based solely on finding the lawyer who could hammer out the best contract with a team. Now, finding an agent or an agency can hinge on the other business they can drum up for a client."
Jace Lipstein, founder of Grungy Gentleman and stylist for the NFL’s recent fashion lifestyle campaign, tells Racked that getting involved with fashion gives players "a positive message and something that elevates their individual brands. It makes them more marketable, allows them to get considered for projects and initiatives they wouldn’t have been thought of for in the past." Johnson adds, "Matriculating through the fashion space opens up opportunities for players to capture a new audience of marketing executives and brand decision makers they may not have in other settings. The ability to connect and collaborate with [the fashion community] can have a profound effect on the brand of an NFL athlete."
A pair of New York Giants players are emerging as fashion's favorite football faces. The first is the aforementioned Beckham Jr., who landed a page in the September issue of Vogue. Dressed in buzzy New York label Hood By Air, he poses next to bonafide supermodel Jourdan Dunn in a spread titled Forces of Fashion.
Cruz recently starred in the fall/winter 2015 Givenchy advertising campaign. "He's a perfect mix of charisma, power, elegance and beauty," the French brand's artistic director, Riccardo Tisci, says in GQ. Cruz is, "a gentleman with the looks of a bad boy," he adds. Cruz was also shot for Gap Factory's 2014 holiday campaign, which was lensed by ultra-famous fashion photog David LaChapelle, and was the face of the fall 2014 lookbook for a collab between Japanese brand Ones Stroke and the NYC-sneaker-shop-turned-cult-label Kith.
Cruz's flirtation with the fashion world isn't limited to modeling. He's working with bespoke denim line 3x1 on a five-piece capsule collection due out this fall, made of Japanese fabrics and priced from $325 to $1,325. The athlete has been a steady fixture on the front row circuit at fashion shows, and was prominently seated at Lanvin, Louis Vuitton, Calvin Klein and Public School, among others. He attended the Met Ball in 2012, 2013 and 2014, posed in Vogue's February 2014 issue with Kate Upton, was named to Vanity Fair's prestigious International Best Dressed List that same year, and was Coveteur'd. The Giants star also has his own signature sneaker with Nike, dubbed the "Air Cruz." The shoe's release has been delayed several times, but it should finally hit shelves November 20th.
The league itself is also working to connect with the fashion industry, albeit somewhat clumsily. The NFL shot a sleek fashion campaign with Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson and New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. NFL merchandise is mixed into looks that include refined menswear pieces, with the intention of showcasing both the official gear and the players in a more stylish light. "NFL apparel isn’t solely for game day anymore," says Lipstein, who styled the shoot. "You can take this outfit from dinner with your family to a date and out with your friends at night. It’s not couch-wear anymore; you can incorporate it into your everyday lifestyle."
The NFL has also partnered with Levi’s on a collection that includes the brand's iconic trucker jacket and a varsity. It aims to fill "a void in the wearable team merchandise market," Levi's brand president James Curleigh says of the collab. "Fans want game day gear that reflects their everyday style, but also lets them proudly represent their favorite team."
The latest initiative from the NFL is the Style Showdown, a fashion event held in New York City that's aimed at female fans. Bloggers like NYC Pretty (Christine Bibbo Herr), A Glam Slam (Heather Zeller) and P.S. It's Fashion (Liz Black) were challenged to style looks with NFL-licensed apparel for scenarios like "casual Friday" and "girl's night out." The event reflects the league's goal to weave its merchandise into the day-to-day wardrobes of fans.
Football and fashion are still in the courting phase, learning each others' idiosyncrasies and stumbling through projects that make sense (like the Levi's NFL collection) and those that don't (like the Style Showdown). Both individual players and the league organization see the benefits of aligning with fashion, from an improved public reputation — whether that's tough athletes shown in a more human light, or historically frumpy team merch getting a cool makeover — to monetary opportunities. Fashion is synonymous with newness, and the NFL is a goldmine of fresh faces and household names, with an incredible opportunity for reach. Imagine Uniqlo marching its US presence from the coasts into the heartland with a campaign starring Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
While Target calls on the Nick Youngs of the NBA to appear in campaigns, NFL stars like Cam Newton, Kaepernick and even Russell Wilson are toiling on the bench until their chance for fashion glory arrives. Forward-thinking brands like Givenchy see the opportunity; it's time for the rest of the industry to realize the potential of NFL athletes in the fashion world.