Like the NFL itself, Swift cuts across political and social divisions, but the sport has not found it easy to accommodate her fame
: AP/Ed Zurga
By his account, Kansas City Chief Travis Kelce made overtures to Taylor Swift when her Eras tour visited Arrowhead Stadium in July. By September they were dating and Swift had made her first appearance at a Chiefs game. After the AFC Championship two weekends ago, when the Chiefs clinched their Super Bowl place, the couple embraced and kissed on the field. On Swift’s way to her seat that night a Baltimore Ravens fan shouted at her “you’re ruining football”.
Swift, somehow, has dominated the NFL season. Interest in her relationship has generated hundreds of millions of whatever metric you choose to define popularity. The two most talked about people going into Sunday’s game are not quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his San Francisco 49ers equivalent Brock Purdy, but tight end Kelce and his monstrously famous girlfriend.
This is a power couple with few precedents. Maybe Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, perhaps David Beckham and Victoria Adams. Posh stayed stoic in the stands, never celebrating by shouting “let’s f---ing go,” as Swift has.
“I’ve been trying to think about whether there’s ever been a similar pop culture phenomenon to Taylor Swift, and a lot of the people who come close are pre-peak internet culture,” says food writer, English literature professor and Swifty Elly McCausland. “A lot of what has propelled her to these heights is the way she has used social media and the internet.”
In this fragmented media era it is plausible that you have never heard her songs, but the world has. Her current tour eclipsed $1bn (£790m) in earnings last year, making it the biggest-grossing in history. That is expected to double in 2024 as it travels across three more continents. The shows which began the tour in Glendale, Arizona brought in more money than the big event the city hosted the previous month: last year’s Super Bowl. Viewing figures for unremarkable Chiefs games shot up as it became clear Swift was in attendance. Smelling an opportunity, makeup brands who have never previously advertised during the Super Bowl have bought in-game slots.
To make it to Las Vegas in time to support Kelce on Sunday, Swift must cross nine time zones after her Saturday night show in Tokyo. The embassy of Japan in the United States took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying that she should be fine, with three bolded-up mentions of her album titles. The NFL has been similarly ready to piggyback, with commentators and social media accounts referencing her songs with gleeful regularity.
Travis Kelce scores, Ian Eagle comments. pic.twitter/5PygM14fJY
The league is keen to attract younger and more female viewers and is presumably conscious of its current dearth of proven stars beyond Mahomes.
The NFL loves Taylor; its fans are less sure. Accusations of cynicism are rarely far away from her, but Kelce has also been eyed with suspicion. He has signed with Creative Artists Agency and is expected to attempt a post-playing career in Hollywood or the WWE. Swift endorsed Joe Biden in 2020, Kelce appeared in adverts for the Pfizer Covid vaccine, so some on the MAGA fringes believe the relationship is some nefarious deep state PsyOp.
But it is the disturbance to the rhythms of TV coverage which seems to be causing the most anger. There is an established visual grammar for any sports broadcast. For Chiefs games this stock list (helicopter shot of stadium, coach muttering into headset behind play sheet, quarterback’s eyes darting beneath helmet visor, line of scrimmage) has been punctuated by hungry glimpses towards whichever executive box Swift is occupying. Usually she is there with Kelce’s family which you might argue is heartland catnip, a woman putting her career on hold to support her jock boyfriend’s sporting pursuits.
“There’s this idea that she’s distracting from the essence of the game which is somehow sacred,” says McCausland. “I see no negatives here. If we track these assumptions to their worst-case scenario, what’s the worst that can happen? Taylor Swift will be on screen a bit. I don’t understand where the anxiety comes from.
“I think a lot of it is because she is very girly. If you look at her music and aesthetic, she embraces girliness and silliness in a way that, for example, Beyoncé doesn’t. It is rooted in not just sexism but a deep suspicion of girls’ culture and what they enjoy and that is a tale as old as time. Young boys are not ridiculed in the same way, ‘boyish’ is never used as a pejorative like ‘girly’ is.”
More from Sport
More from The Telegraph