Something has shifted in the sports world since September. The first time I noticed it, I was getting coffee with a friend on a chilly Tuesday morning, when surprisingly, one of the first things out of her mouth was an apology. She asked for my patience over the next few minutes, and for forgiveness in advance for anything she—or those like her—would say about how NFL football worked.
But this wasn’t about a random snit within a friend group, or drama in a club we shared. It was about one of the biggest pieces of culture news of the last few months: the relationship between Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift.
When the uber–successful music star stood and screamed in a luxury box at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 24—and then when she was seen leaving the stadium postgame holding hands with the star tight end of the Kansas City Chiefs postgame—two worlds merged. And in the weeks since, as the couple has been seen publicly together and the rumors of a relationship are now all–but–certainly–true, the often–disparate cultures of NFL fandom and Swiftie-ism have become one.
And with this have come consequences beyond friends apologizing in advance for the potentially dumb football questions they may ask in upcoming weeks. Some of them have been positive—like Swifties arguing for grass fields, which most players support, after Kelce injured his ankle playing on turf—but most of these effects have been downright annoying.
There is no problem with an influx of fans to NFL football. As a football fan, I love this game, others should enjoy it too, and I have no problem explaining the rules of the game to people who want to get into the game. But what is problematic is how the NFL has responded to a new surge of people interested in its product.
This relationship between Swift and Kelce could have been a great opportunity for the NFL, its teams, and its fans to showcase what makes the game one of the most popular—and profitable—in the world. They could have shown off the best of the sport, like the incredible skill and athleticism of stars like Lamar Jackson and Justin Jefferson, or the compelling storylines created by rivalries and the week–to–week drama of analyzing which teams could make the playoffs. This could have hopefully convinced these new fans to stay, while also keeping existing ones happy.
But instead, the NFL decided to pander to Swifties, changing a social media bio to read “chiefs are 2-0 as swifties” and “NFL (Taylor’s Version)” after Swift’s appearance at another Chiefs game. Swift also appeared in an increased number of ads during NFL games and has played a major role in the league’s marketing of its games for over a month now. In doing so, the league essentially chose Swifties over its established, existing fanbase.
The NFL is a business, and its goal is to make money by attracting the largest possible audience to its product to watch games on television, attend in person, or buy merchandise. And it seems that the Swift-Kelce relationship has been beneficial in this regard, with Kelce’s jersey sales up 400%.
But it is irritating to many who are first and foremost fans of football and the on–field products, that we seem to be taken for granted by the giant money machine that is the National Football League, and left behind while the league chases the hot new thing. The league has been famous for taking vapid stances on many issues in recent year—including player discipline for sexual assault and over whether players should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem—in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. But now, by focusing so much on one piece of pop culture, the NFL has chosen a much less relevant piece of the zeitgeist to pick a strong side on. Not only does this suggest a lack of backbone on anything without dollar signs it alienates many of the people they’ve spent years tiptoeing around.
There were ways this could have been avoided, too. It would have been possible for the league to embrace Swift and her fans while still leaving most of the product untouched. A great example of this can be found in CBS announcer Ian Eagle’s call of a Kelce touchdown, saying that the tight end found a “blank space” in the end zone to make the catch. An unrecognizable pun, but certainly less intrusive than showing an elated Swift performing an elaborate handshake with Brittany Mahomes every time their beaus link up on the field below.
The product the league puts out every week is good enough to keep millions tuning back in week after week without any People Magazine drama. This relationship is great, both for the individuals involved and for the fan bases that are finding surprising grounds to interact. But the NFL shouldn't be riding Taylor’s coattails all the way to the bank, they should be reminding themselves that their first priority is the sport.