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Travis Kelce, explained

What’s a tight end? And other burning questions about Taylor’s new fling.

Travis Kielce, wearing a Kansas City Chiefs uniform number 87, walks off the field raising one white-gloved hand pointing to the sky.
Travis Kelce.
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably heard more about Taylor Swift in the last two weeks than you have in your life to date. If you’re a Swiftie, you’ve probably heard more about tight ends, offensive linemen, and Kansas City than you ever dreamed you would.

Arguably the two biggest monocultures left standing — Taylor Swift and the NFL — have collided with a monumental impact, all because Taylor has apparently begun a relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

By now, even if you’re not in either fandom, you’ve likely at least heard about how Kelce (pronounced “Kell-see”) attempted to woo Swift on the Eras tour by giving her a friendship bracelet with his phone number written on it. Next thing we knew, the two were “quietly hanging out.”

Then Taylor showed up to a late-September Chiefs game to cheer on Travis (who later confirmed he’d invited her), and it was a whole new ball game — and not just because the players were openly transfixed by the megastar in the stands. Overnight, the NFL and Kelce himself became the hot topic of conversation among people who’d never thought about football before, while sportscasters found themselves injecting Swift references into their sports roundups. The media frenzy around Kelce and Swift ballooned, along with the memes and the endless references to Swifties invading sports fandom. Countless articles explaining football for Swift fans began circulating the takesphere.

When the Chiefs’ next game against the New York Jets rolled around, the hype over Taylor/Travis (Traylor? Tayvis? The ship nomenclature is very important!) was so intense that the NFL created a viral promo for the game that used Swift’s “Welcome to New York” as the backdrop and slyly declared the matchup to be “Taylor made for Sunday night.” And they were right: Swift showed up to the game with a whole crew of celebrity friends including Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, and Hugh Jackman (has Hugh Jackman ever even been to a football game before?!), all of whom hung out with Kelce’s mom in the VIP box, cheering on the Chiefs while every eye was trained on Taylor.

The October 1 Chiefs/Jets game, as an NBC press release subsequently crowed, was not only must-see TV, but the most-watched game of the year since the Super Bowl. As Vox’s Emily Stewart put it, “The buzz is inescapable, whether you’re a Taylor Swift fan, an NFL fan, both, or neither. Kelce’s jersey sales have spiked, as has the number of his Instagram followers ... The social media chatter is endless. The media coverage is breathless. Seemingly everyone has weighed in.”

Taylor Swift, Blake Lively, and Ryan Reynolds cheer on the Kansas City Chiefs against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2023, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Of course, all of this hyperventilating would still have happened if Taylor Swift had dated any other football player. But it was Travis Kelce who, from all accounts, boldly pursued Swift. That’s a dramatic change from the typical Swiftian narrative, which if we’re to believe her song lyrics usually puts her in the position of “saw you across a crowded room and knew I had to have you.” In this case, the “crowded room” was Swift’s Eras tour, and Kelce was the one making the moves.

And while many people and much of the media seem convinced that the entire relationship (if they’re even dating, which hasn’t actually been confirmed) is just a PR move, that only raises more questions: If it’s a fake PR stunt, which of them is benefiting, and how? What would it say about Kelce — and football in 2023 — that dating arguably the world’s reigning pop star fits into his career ambitions?

Who is Travis Kelce?

Born, like Swift, in 1989, Travis Kelce is originally from small-town Ohio, where he grew up playing a variety of sports, including quarterbacking for his high school alongside his older brother Jason, a running back who went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles. The younger Kelce was also a high school basketball star as well as a baseball pitcher with a 90-mile-per-hour pitch, per his coach.

In college at the University of Cincinnati, Travis transitioned to the role of tight end from quarterback, an increasingly popular football strategy that basically allows offensive linemen to use their quarterback experience to their advantage. Kelce was so good he won the 2012 College Football Performance Awards Tight End of the Year. You might think that accolade gave him an advantage in the NFL draft, but in fact Kelce was a third-round pick for the Chiefs; it wasn’t until his third season that he really began to shine, helping propel the Chiefs to the playoffs and earning a spot in the 2015 Pro Bowl.

When Patrick Mahomes became the team’s starting quarterback in 2018, he and Kelce’s on-field synergy seemed to elevate the team to a whole new level — including serving what the NFL has since called “the greatest regular-season game of all time” against the Rams. The Chiefs went on to win the 2019 Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers — their first Super Bowl win in 50 years. Everything since for Kelce has been gravy.

What even is a tight end, and what makes Travis Kelce such a good one?

Football consists of two sides, or “lines”: the defense and the offense. The offense tries to advance the ball down the field, and the defense tries to stop them. The tight end is a hybrid role that allows players to serve as both offensive linemen (the players who obstruct the defense and clear the way for the run) as well as wide receivers (the ones who catch and run the ball). The tight ends are the receivers who line up at the ends of the offensive line of players.

Here’s the thing: Kelce is a great tight end. Since 2015, he’s been charting legendary milestones, racking up at least 1,000 receiving yards (yards run on the field after catching the ball) in a season. In 2015, he became the first and only player in NFL history to run 1,000 receiving yards four seasons in a row. Kelce has since notched that number every season. That’s right: As of fall 2023, Kelce is the only tight end in NFL history to run 1,000 receiving yards a season for seven consecutive seasons.

Even being able to run 1,000 receiving yards at all puts him in a class with just a handful of other legendary tight ends, like former Patriots all-star Rob Gronkowski. Last year he became just the fifth tight-end in NFL history to reach 10,000 receiving yards over his career — and he did so in just seven seasons, a much shorter timespan than any of his predecessors. As Chiefs blogger Evan Gabrielson recently put it, “He’s completely obliterated any and all expectations for sustained success.”

Okay. What is he like off the field?

You might think all of this high-level footballing would leave Kelce little time for extracurriculars, but that’s where things get really interesting. Kelce seems to have been jonesing for more time in the spotlight for a while now. Thanks to E!’s 2016 series Catching Kelce, a short-lived Bachelor-style dating show in which single women vied for Kelce’s affections, the sports world has long considered Kelce to be “eligible” in more than just the draftable sense. As the titular bachelor, Kelce, per Salon’s Olivia Luppino, reportedly sleeps with at least one of the women, “slips in and out of a Blaccent,” and showed no qualms about picking the season’s villain, Maya Benberry, as the winner. (Kelce referred to her as “Kentucky” after her home state.)

He was also self-aware that the show wasn’t actually about finding love. It was “a dating show where no one even cared about dating.” That might contain some hints for anyone wondering if the Swift/Kelce relationship is real. After the show aired in fall 2016, Kelce told ESPN’s Mike & Mike that he enjoyed it and is “cool with all the women” who appeared, including staying friends with Benberry — but that he had no intention of doing a second season.

“Offensive linemen aren’t known for being out in front of the camera like that, showing their personality,” Mike Golic commented to him. He was speaking of Travis’s brother Jason, who made cameo appearances, but the remark applies equally to Travis, who seems fully at home on camera and comfortable with the attention. Both Kelces enjoy being public figures. In 2022, fresh off their Super Bowl wins, the brothers launched a podcast, New Heights, which saw them bickering about whose Super Bowl victory was cooler. Even if you’re not into sports, you must admit that’s comedy gold.

New Heights has since become one of the biggest sports podcasts in the world, routinely ranking as the No. 1 sports podcast in the country and gaining fans like LeBron James. Since the Swift/Kelce rumors began, it has gained even more attention, garnering over a million additional YouTube views as Swifties flock to check out what Kelce has to say about the dating rumors.

For the most part, Kelce has been chill. He told his brother on the latest podcast episode that he thinks the media is “overdoing it,” but also “just trying to have fun” with all the rumors. Meanwhile, he and Taylor are reportedly talking on the phone daily; a source told US Weekly that Taylor reportedly “likes that he’s a normal, nice guy. He’s down-to-earth and isn’t affected by fame. She also thinks he’s hot.”

So why would a relationship so cute be fake?

There are a couple of reasons to be at least a little suspicious about the too-good-to-be-true entanglement, but there’s also plenty of galaxy-brain thinking out there. Some fans say the Chiefs’ marketing department engineered the entire relationship as a stunt to distract Chief fans from Mahomes’s sorta-controversial wife Brittany Mahomes, who tends to start ruckuses on social media. Since Taylor and Brittany have been spending lots of time together recently, however, that plot, if it existed, seems to have backfired. Some fans think the whole thing is a ploy by Kelce to distract from his breakup with Kayla Nicole, who he dated for five years until shortly before the Swift rumors began. Nobody really knows what happened there, but Nicole seems salty about it.

Another theory is that the Kelce brothers engineered the stunt as publicity for their recently released documentary, Kelce, which focuses on Jason’s final year in the sport and culminates with him and Travis battling it out during 2023’s Super Bowl LVII. (Chiefs won.) But since this is probably the first time you’ve even heard that the Kelce brothers have a documentary about themselves, that rumor probably isn’t true either; certainly Swift hasn’t been promoting it for them, apart from just making people aware that the Kelces exist.

Still other theories veer in the opposite direction: Instead of being fake, some fans argue that the two have secretly been gravitating toward each other since at least 2013, which was when Swift was spotted holding up a Kelce jersey at a fan meet. And sharp-eyed fans have noted that when Travis played “Kiss, Marry, Kill” in 2016, the person he wanted to kiss? Taylor Swift. We see you, fanboy. Reports that he’s “completely smitten” with Taylor aren’t going unnoticed.

What’s notable is that nearly all of these rumors center around Kelce, not Taylor; what she gains if anything out of this is difficult to say, especially since she’s probably the most talked-about pop artist on Earth at the moment. Taylor has always at least tried to be canny about overexposure, even if she’s occasionally missed the mark. But dating Kelce seems to have brought exposure like never before.

Then why would Taylor Swift take the risk?

It’s true that the NFL is having a field day with this, and that Swifties invading their local football stadiums outside of concert time is must-see fall TV. Kelce’s right; the media probably is “overdoing it” just a bit. And while that might not backfire on Kelce, as long as he keeps running 1,000-yard seasons, it could very easily backfire on Swift, as it has other female pop stars who’ve dated athletes only to then be blamed for those athletes’ career setbacks. And Swift has already spent most of her career being targeted by the media as a poisonous media figure. Everyone finally figured out that she’s a creative genius, sure — but has that ever stopped a backlash from recurring?

So, yes, Taylor seems to be risking a lot to date Kelce right now. But it’s also true that sometimes a girl and a guy can have their eye on each other for years until the time is right to go on a date or two and see what clicks.

And if that experiment conveniently leads Kelce to more fame and the NFL to better ratings, well, who’s going to stand in the way of true love?