The NFL’s super couple
There is literally no bigger story in sports right now than, well, Taylor Swift. After selling out scores of NFL stadiums across the country at Super Bowl ticket rates for her recent world tour, she’s now taking center stage in the games themselves. At least Kansas City Chiefs games, and from a luxury box, not the field. That’s because of her burgeoning relationship with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who prior to late summer was a well-known but certainly not household name. That changed after the two became something of an item thanks to his courtship at a Swift concert earlier this year, or so we believe. Such was the scene when she cheered at last weekend’s lobsided Chiefs win over the Chicago Bears, where cameras spent as much time focused on Swift’s reactions from the box as they did on the field of play. Swift wore a Travis Kelce jersey, which had a 400% increase in sales over the weekend. Super Bowl MVPs don’t see those kinds of numbers.
Of course, that wasn’t the only Swift impression. Kelce’s Instagram went up 20%, his podcast is number one on Apple, and the shoes Swift wore to the game – New Balance 550s – flew off the shelves. There is very little economic activity in this country that isn’t impacted by Taylor Swift. Add the NFL, a largely unmovable economic force, to that long list. Perhaps most interesting in this merger of America’s two favorite pastimes – Taylor Swift and professional football – is the explosion of social media content related to this new super couple. A lot of it is entertainingly conspiratorial, like whether this is a staged relationship for commerce. Perhaps funded by a corporate giant that needs image reform, say, Bud Light. Even more entertaining are people proposing complex football theories, like the idea that Taylor Swift is using Travis Kelce to make sure her hometown Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl after she ghosts him during the playoffs. To be fair, I’ve heard crazier.
There’s nothing all that crazy about celebrities getting close to professional sports – although we’ve grown more accustomed to NBA stars than football ones. Victoria Adams – aka Posh Spice – famously married soccer star David Beckham. Ciara and QB Russell Wilson are a pair. Gabrielle Union married Dwayne Wade. And of course, superstar quarterback Tom Brady formed a partnership with supermodel Gisele, although that didn’t end up so well. But in most of those cases, even with Gisele, the athlete was as big a star as their celebrity partner. In the case of Travis Kelce, no one could be as big a star as Taylor Swift. I’m including presidents and popes and anyone else who might have that kind of stature. So even though there were a lot of famous sports pairings, no one ever thought it might move the needle on the games themselves. It’s kind of like being around the sun – there’s no planet that might throw off its gravitational force.
That is, until the NFL met its match in the hottest of stars in Taylor Swift. The one person who could somehow make the NFL bigger than it already is. Which leaves us with a few interesting questions. First, how will traditional NFL fans, who I see as somewhat distinct from Swifties, react to the League’s new direction? I can imagine some dissonance when hard gambling football fans get cutaways of Taylor’s outfits instead of a replay of third down. Second, is there any chance that Swift fans will stick around once this love affair is over – and we know it’s going to be over. I know millions will watch a Chiefs game in the hope they see their idol do more chest bump celebrations after touchdowns. But will they do the same when it’s simply Patrick Mahomes getting a high five from his linemen? My guess is when it comes to Swifties and the NFL, this could be a one hit wonder.
Which really is the bigger question. As cheeky as this whole thing is, is there something to a more coordinated search for the next generation of football fans, particularly as fewer might play the game itself. It’s hard to arrange marriages to build an audience, but it does seem valuable to see that if you think more broadly about the NFL experience, a whole lot more people might watch.
Of course, if you want to really sell out NFL stadiums, there’s a surefire trick the League could employ. And it’s been done before. Forget the games, just have Taylor Swift do more concerts. Because that is the biggest story in sports.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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