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The Swift-Kelce romance sounds like a movie. But the NFL swears it wasn't scripted

Fans hold up signs during the NFL game between Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs in Germany in November.
Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP via Getty Images
Fans hold up signs during the NFL game between Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs in Germany in November.

Boy meets girl while she's in the midst of a record-breaking world tour. Girl falls for boy, showing up to his football games and driving TV ratings, attendance and merchandise sales in the process. Boy's team overcomes a bumpy season to win the AFC championship game. And the two, wearing matching bracelets, steal the spotlight with their embrace on the field.

Now boy's team is headed to its fourth Super Bowl in five years. And people are betting not only on who will win, but how often girl — who has since been named Time person of the year — will be shown in the stands (assuming she can get there in time).

The romance of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood movie — not to mention a huge win for the Kansas City Chiefs and the NFL itself. It's created a legion of new football fans while also fueling PR stunt accusations and right-wing conspiracy theories, including that the league scripted their relationship to boost views.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell laughed off the notion at his pre-Super Bowl press conference on Monday, replying that "I don't think I'm that good a scripter, or anybody on our staff." But he was quick to acknowledge the positive impact Swift has had on the season.

"Obviously, it creates a buzz. It creates another group of young fans, particularly young women that are interested in seeing, 'Why is she going to this game? Why is she interested in this game?'" Gooddell said. "Besides Travis, she is a football fan, and I think that's great for us."

The numbers say so too. Swift's association with Kelce has generated an equivalent brand value of $331.5 million for the Kansas City Chiefs and the NFL, as of late January, according to Apex Marketing Group.

President Eric Smallwood told NPR that the figure is likely to grow, since it's from before the Chiefs' championship victory — which drew more than 55 million viewers to become the most-watched AFC title game in NFL history.

While there have been influential celebrity sports couples before, Smallwood says he's never seen anything like this.

"It's taking entertainment and mixing it with the top sport in the U.S., now with the top event of the year, viewing audience-wise," Smallwood said. "It's a phenomenon. It's the Taylor effect for sure."

Swift's star power draws more female football fans

Taylor Swift watches a game between the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri on September 24.
Jason Hanna / Getty Images
Getty Images
Taylor Swift watches a game between the Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri on September 24.

Fans started speculating about Swift and Kelce's budding relationship over the summer, as the first U.S. leg of Swift's Eras Tour was in full swing.

The tour has grossed a record over $1 billion so far, selling out stadiums and boosting local economies along the way. Average attendance at a U.S. Swift concert in 2023 was over 71,000, versus more than 69,000 for regular season NFL games, according to Smallwood.

"She's filled more football stadiums than any football team has this year, if you think about it," he added.

Nora Princiotti, a football writer for The Ringer and a Swiftie, called the Eras Tour the pop culture event of the year.

"And midway through the first big leg of it, she starts dating Travis Kelce ... the star tight end of this budding Kansas City dynasty," Princiotti told NPR last month. "So you have these two elements of our last bits of monoculture sort of coming together, and it really created this phenomenon."

Swift attended her first Chiefs game in late September, then 11 more. Her presence in the Kelce box, usually alongside family members and famous friends, thrilled fans watching on TV and social media.

The Chiefs-Jets game she attended on Oct. 1 averaged 27 million viewers — including 2 million women — making it the most-watched Sunday show since last year's Super Bowl, according to NBC. By the end of the regular season, the NFL had seen its highest ratings since 2015, and the highest-regular season viewership among women since it started tracking the statistic in 2000.

Football is the most-watched sport in the U.S., and one of the most profitable, despite its myriad of issues involving race and diversity, concussions and other safety concerns, and its handling of athletes' misconduct allegations off the field.

Women make up just under half of the NFL fanbase, but more than half of Swift's. And it's a demographic that the NFL has long struggled to reach, Princiotti said — until now.

"You see it in the numbers. You see it in the merchandise sales. I see it in my group texts with a lot of friends who do not normally follow football," she explained. "They don't have, suddenly, hot takes about the Jets' defensive line, but they know what's going on in a way that is different from before this started to happen."

Candy Lee, a professor of journalism and integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University, says while some Swifties may be driven by a passion for the game, many are driven by "heart's passion."

"We all enjoy rooting for the 'win,' even if it's our team, the romance, the celebrity," she told NPR over email. "In this case, it brings sparkle to the game for a group of fans of entertainment, which is what both [the Eras Tour] and football season have in common."

The path to Las Vegas wasn't necessarily direct

Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift celebrate after the Kansas City Chiefs win AFC Championship Game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 28.
Patrick Smith / Getty Images
Getty Images
Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift celebrate after the Kansas City Chiefs win AFC Championship Game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on January 28.

A lot of things had to go right this season for Swift, Kelce and the Chiefs to end up where they are now, as Smallwood pointed out.

"I don't think you can write the script for this," he said.

The two were able to travel to each others' events — and generate buzz — despite their jam-packed schedules. Swift was able to travel to Chiefs games from her South America concerts, while Kelce used the team's bye week to attend one of Swift's concerts in Argentina.

The defending Super Bowl champs had a rocky season on the field, marked by offensive struggles and injuries, including Kelce's. Smallwood says that the majority of Super Bowl ad spots were sold in November, at which point no one could have predicted the Chiefs would be one of the teams on the field.

"A lot of things have to happen and it happened," Smallwood said. "It happened for the benefit of the NFL, the benefit of the Super Bowl, and the benefit of the Chiefs — not to mention the [San Francisco] 49ers."

The surge in viewership definitely helped the NFL sell advertising around its games, Smallwood says. It also means new advertisers, particularly in the health and beauty industries, may be getting in on the Super Bowl action to try to reach the growing female fan base.

The Super Bowl is already one of the most popular TV events each year. Last year's Chiefs vs. Eagles matchup — which pitted the two Kelce brothers against each other — was the most-watched U.S.-based telecast of all time, drawing an average of 115.1 million viewers across all platforms.

This year's could draw even more viewers, thanks in large part to Swift.

The "Taylor Effect" is poised to make the Super Bowl even bigger

Coasters from Westside Storey commemorating Swift and Kelce's relationship are displayed in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday.
Nick Ingram / AP
Coasters from Westside Storey commemorating Swift and Kelce's relationship are displayed in Kansas City, Mo., on Monday.

A Seton Hall Sports Poll released Wednesday found that 72% of Americans plan to tune into the Super Bowl, up from 66% last year.

When asked if they thought Swift had anything to do with that decision, or that of anyone in their household, 21% of respondents said yes. That number was almost twice as high for 18-to-24 year-olds.

"From a marketing perspective, the NFL and its advertisers couldn't do any better," marketing Professor Daniel Ladik, chief methodologist for the poll, said in a statement. "The viewership for this game is on a seemingly inexorable march toward more viewers, and this year Taylor Swift may be playing the role of drum major — at least for 18-34 year olds, a market that almost everyone covets."

Other polls drew similar conclusions.

A recent survey of 2,000 Americans by the online lending marketplace LendingTree found that 24% of Gen Z-ers and 20% of millennials are more interested in football because of Swift. Eighteen percent of Americans — and 31% of Gen Z-ers — said they're rooting for the Chiefs because of her.

And 16% of Americans said Swift had influenced them to spend money on football, such as buying memorabilia or signing up for a streaming service to watch games.

"If there's one thing that people should've learned all too well by now, it's that you should never be surprised by the enormity of Swift's influence," LendingTree chief credit analyst Matt Schulz said. "We've seen it with her records and concerts, of course, but we've also seen it in movies, politics, and now football."

Earlier this week, Swift announced that an extended version of her Eras Tour concert film, which set multiple box office records of its own after it was released in October, will head to Disney+ in March. The following month she will release her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, which she announced at last weekend's Grammy Awards.

Just like with the concert, Swifties are more likely to be watching the Super Bowl on screen than in person, though a study from one company found that 1% of them would sell an organ to pay for the experience. And if the how-to guides cropping up online this week are any indication, the Swift-themed watch parties are likely to be very glittery.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.