As Swift makes appearances at Kansas City Chiefs games and rumors swirl that the pop star is dating the tight end, a marketing gold mine has sprung up. 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. Game viewership has jumped as Swift fans tune in to catch a glimpse of her, and NFL games are already the most-watched programs on TV anyway. The social media chatter is endless. The media coverage is breathless. Seemingly everyone has weighed in, including, inexplicably, Donald Trump, though he is saying what a lot of people are thinking — wish them the best, but also, is this even real?
Conspiracy theories about whether this is a publicity stunt aside, it’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. The NFL makes inroads with younger and female viewers, putting the influencer campaign it’s been engaged in for years on overdrive. Kelce expands his celebrity further outside of football, which is something plenty of NFL players could use — football doesn’t guarantee you’re rich forever, and careers are often short. And Swift further expands her empire, sells some more concert and movie tickets, and gathers fodder for her next album.
Taylor Swift is great at translating attention and loyalty into money. The NFL is great at turning attention and loyalty into money. Their combined forces equal ... well, you get the point.
“It’s like a business bonanza that just appeared for two brands that have some of the biggest brands in the world,” said Andrew Brandt, a former Green Bay Packers executive and the director of the Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law at Villanova University. It’s not clear either needed more attention here, but they got it.
It’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s a capitalistic spectacle. It’s fun. It’s also fraught. When Taylor Swift lends her brand to the NFL and vice versa, what exactly does that mean, and what is it in service of? And for either of these gigantic entities, it is even necessary?
Even Kelce has said it’s a lot. When prodded on the podcast he does with his brother, he acknowledged the NFL is “overdoing it a little bit for sure” on all the hullabaloo, though he hedged, “I think they’re just trying to have fun with it.”
Did you see who won the Taylor Swift Show on Sunday?
If you didn’t catch the Chiefs game against the New York Jets on Sunday, I’ll give you a rundown of what you missed, per Front Office Sports. Kelce appeared in three commercials; the Chiefs quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, was in two; and its coach, Andy Reid, got one. As for cutaways to Swift, there were 17, as the cameras repeatedly zoomed in on her watching from a box alongside a cadre of fellow celebrities, including Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and Hugh Jackman. Injured Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers, making his first appearance at a game since said injury was sustained, was also shown quite a bit, though not as much as Swift. (Also, the Chiefs won, though the game was a lot closer than anybody expected.)
Two separate spots for Swift’s upcoming film of her Eras tour, out October 13, were shown, so on top of seeing Taylor and company in the box, audiences got to see Taylor onstage and be reminded to get tickets. Television personality Carson Daly made a taped appearance at the top of the night, explaining the game to the Swifties tuning in as the song “Welcome to New York” played. It conveniently doubled as an ad for The Voice, which premiered in September on NBC.
First it was Swift, but then the network, advertisers, and the NFL itself swooped in to try to cash in, too. The circles of capitalist behemoths benefiting just rippled out. The whole thing felt like a three-hour over-the-top ad for a variety of interested parties on primetime TV.
Jake from State Farm appeared in the insurance company’s commercials, as is par for the course. What is less par for the course is that hours before, he had appeared in real life alongside Donna Kelce, Travis Kelce’s mom, at a Philadelphia Eagles game to watch Travis’s brother, Jason Kelce, play. Jason Kelce is currently starring in a documentary about what he thought would be his last year in the NFL airing on Amazon Prime, titled Kelce. Amazon has the exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football.
Also on Sunday, the NFL changed its Twitter background to Swift reaction shots and its Instagram profile to note the Chiefs were 2-0 as Swifties. (It has since changed both back to more normal NFL content.) It has put out various Taylor-themed videos and other content, hoping the Grammy winner’s presence at some games pays off — which it has.
Ian Trombetta, senior vice president of social, influencer, and content marketing at the NFL, told Vox that the NFL is seeing record views of its videos on platforms like TikTok. “In some cases, we’re seeing close to 200 million views on Travis and Taylor-related content just over the last week alone,” he said. NBC’s audience for the game peaked at 29 million viewers, including an increase of about 2 million female viewers. The Chiefs’ game against the Chicago Bears the weekend prior saw a giant bump, too. “The interest is tremendous,” Trombetta said.
What everyone is getting out of this is more fame and money, whether or not they need it
It’s no secret that the NFL is a commercial endeavor. The league made $12 billion in 2022, not to mention the money it makes for networks and retailers and even advertisers who shell out big bucks for a Super Bowl ad. Swift is a commercial endeavor as well, or at least at the helm of one. At this point, it’s like she’s an economy all on her own.
Given that, it makes sense that they would find their way together in what feels like the ultimate crossover event.
Of course, there are Swift fans who like football and vice versa, but these are two larger-than-life entities getting access to demographics they don’t already dominate, gaining market share where many might have thought none existed. Or, at least, the potential inroads weren’t expected to look like this.
The NFL has been pushing for the last several years to engage influencers and celebrities to reach a younger generation of fans, said Kavitha Davidson, a correspondent for Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel on HBO. Swift, the ultimate influencer, is delivering the kinds of results right now NFL marketers could only dream of. “If this is something that fell into the NFL’s lap, then this was absolutely the kind of marketing blitz we were going to see,” she said.
“What that really opens up for us is the opportunity for us to engage more casual fans, especially young women, and educate them a little bit about football,” Trombetta said. He acknowledged that “naturally” some of the level of conversation and interest around Swift and the NFL will start to die down, but they’re trying to put out educational content for new fans to hopefully get them to stick around. “It’s important for us to make sure the game is approachable.”
Swift goes back on tour in November, so the clock is ticking. The excitement may very well fade before then anyway — that’s assuming she keeps showing up at games and whatever romance is going on with Kelce continues. “My question is, one more game of this, two more games of this, three more games of this? But ultimately, it’s going to be up to the networks, too,” Brandt said. “Are they going to show the box less?” Some NFL fans would like them to; normies and Swift fans not so much.
It’s not like the NFL was struggling with viewership in the first place, or Swift with selling movie tickets. She’s already broken presale records at AMC and the NFL accounted for 82 of the top 100 television broadcasts Americans watched last year. But in capitalist America, enough is never enough.
“The NFL’s business is just fine, the NFL’s bottom line is just fine, but they, just like every other corporation in America, are constantly seeking growth year over year. It’s seen as a failure even if there was a small dip,” Davidson said.
The NFL saw a decline in ratings after Peyton Manning’s retirement in 2016 — in part because people were tuning in so much to watch his last season in 2015. Might a future Taylorless game cause a bit of a dip mirage, too?
It’s not yet clear whether Swift will attend the Chiefs’ next game — they’re playing the Vikings on Sunday in Minnesota, which is lovely but may be harder to get a bunch of celebrity friends to than New York.
What we’re not looking at when we’re looking at Taylor Swift
The more you think about this situation, the knottier it can quickly become in ways that are quite uncomfortable. The NFL could use some reputation management, and who better to help deliver that than a beloved bombshell blonde?
To tune in to an NFL game because Taylor Swift is there or you like the sport or whatever is already a bit of a moral compromise. Football is incredibly dangerous, which is why youth participation in the sport is declining. It does enormous amounts of physical damage to players, including severe, lifelong brain injuries, which the league has continually tried to sweep under the rug.
In January, fans were shocked when Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field mid-game after a collision that caused his heart to stop. He played his first regular-season game back with the team on Sunday, the same day as the Chiefs-Jets.
Swift going to a Chiefs game is a headline the NFL would much prefer to many of the others it is often the subject of, including when it comes to women. The league has a longstanding problem with domestic violence among some of its players. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has been at the center of more than 20 sexual assault allegations, which he has denied and in most cases settled. He was penalized by the league; he’s also currently the starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns.
The NFL has made sincere efforts to do better with the treatment and promotion of women, not in the pink everyone sports on the field for Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October but in actually promoting women and including them in programs. It says it’s increasing penalties for sexual misconduct in the wake of the Watson case.
The excitement around Swift’s fandom at the moment papers over some aspects of the league that are quite ugly and that turn off younger and female viewers — aspects that maybe a couple of weeks ago some of her followers would have said they were disturbed by.
There’s also the question of the way the NFL approaches its players and how many of them are treated as disposable. Unlike many other sports in the United States, NFL players are sort of secondary to the league itself, and they’re often not as famous as players in other professional sports. Their season is shorter, and they wear helmets, so you can’t even see their faces. Players’ careers are often not long, and if they’re injured or are cut for another reason, their contracts generally aren’t guaranteed.
Many players need to strike while the iron is hot to try to ensure some financial security. It’s something Travis Kelce has been good at, whether in hosting a podcast or appearing on SNL or showing up in ads, including for people to get vaccinated. The same goes for his brother. Not everyone can date one of the world’s most famous pop stars or get a documentary on Amazon, but they do want to find ways to stand out off the field.
“A lot of athletes are realizing that they need to use these moments where they are on primetime national television to boost their platform as influencers to set themselves up to do something once they retire, whether they retire out of choice or not,” Davidson said. “Football especially is a really tenuous game, and nobody’s careers are guaranteed here.”
You can’t really blame Swift for putting her red lipstick on the NFL pig. She seems to like the guy, she wants to go see him play, and famous people go sit courtside at Knicks and Lakers games all the time. Plenty of women are NFL fans. (Personally, I like Taylor Swift and football.) The whole “football is for boys and Taylor is for girls” thing is generally boring and stereotypical. Sports are fun! There’s a reason so many people watch them.
Still, there’s something about the spectacle of all this that’s jarring. Taylor Swift’s latest (potential) romance doesn’t need to be turned into an opportunity to sell football tickets and movie seats and convince viewers to tune in to The Voice. It doesn’t merit the amount of media coverage it’s getting. (I am aware I am part of the problem here.) But the capitalist machine recognizes an opportunity when it sees one. And who are two better capitalist mechanics than the NFL and Taylor Swift?
Update, October 4, 11:20 am ET: This story was originally published on October 3 and has been updated to include Travis Kelce’s comments on the attention.