Even the behemoth NFL can benefit from the 'Taylor Swift Effect'

Taylor Swift holds both thumbs up during the first half of Kansas City's home game against Chicago last Sunday. The pop music megastar shared space with friends and family of Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, whom she may or may not be dating. (Jason Hanna/Getty Images - image credit)
Taylor Swift holds both thumbs up during the first half of Kansas City's home game against Chicago last Sunday. The pop music megastar shared space with friends and family of Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, whom she may or may not be dating. (Jason Hanna/Getty Images - image credit)

If you're looking to measure Taylor Swift's effect on NFL fanhood, start with this figure: 24.7 million.

That's how many people tuned in to see Kansas City throttle the Chicago Bears last Sunday. Granted, you have to concede that some people might have watched the game to see if the Bears really are as bad as advertised. If you believe the scoreline — Kansas City 41, Chicago 10 — they're even worse. By midway through the second quarter, the game's only real appeal to hardcore fans lay in the possibility that Kansas City might go all out on Chicago's anemic defence, and try to surpass the 70 points Miami had put up earlier that afternoon.

That scenario describes me, a long-suffering Bears fan, and a significant number of other viewers on Sunday, but there certainly weren't 24.7 million of us. Many of the rest, we know now, were less concerned with action on the field than with the seating arrangement in the luxury box, where the pop music megastar Taylor Swift shared space with friends and family of Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce, whom she may or may not be dating.

So consider another figure: 17.5 million.

It's the average TV audience for NFL games through the regular season's first two weeks, and it represents a two per cent bump compared with last year, and the highest average TV viewership since 2018. If a Taylor Swift cameo, and the prospect of a romance between a sports star and a pop music icon boosted TV ratings from weak to respectable, we would all understand. But knowing Swift, a 12-time Grammy award winner, helped propel TV numbers from high to stratospheric prompts a different discussion.

NFL fans and media have reacted by going full Swiftie, which I understand — to a point.

Few names on earth are as search engine optimized as Taylor Swift. Any mention prompts an avalanche of traffic to your website, which begets more Taylor Swift coverage, which begets more readers and engagement, which begets… you get it. There's a reason that, even as traditional newspapers shrink, the Nashville Tennessean has added a Taylor Swift beat.

For legacy media, tapping into Swift's massive fan base — she has 273 million Instagram followers — is a matter of survival. And for folks covering the NFL, it's a fun change of pace to see one of the planet's biggest pop stars hang out for an afternoon.

But have some pride, please.

If Swift had showed up at a boxing match, a track meet, or a hockey game, I'd get it. In the U.S. market, those sports are all niche products with mainstream ambitions, each one oozing its own brand of Please Like My Sport desperation. Whenever the cool kids come to sit at their lunch table, they feel vindicated.

But the NFL?

They are the cool kids. Glad to see them acknowledge that somebody else is cooler, though fawning over her doesn't suit them.

Organic marketing pays off

But the bigger lesson is even more refreshing. Teams and leagues can pour money and effort into focus groups and ad campaigns and novelty events, but the biggest, most satisfying marketing wins are often organic.

Blender Sunglasses, for example, couldn't have planned a better activation for their partnership with Deion Sanders, the NFL legend turned University of Colorado football coach, than the off-the-cuff sound bit from Colorado State coach Jay Norvell in the run-up to a mid-September game against the Buffaloes.

"When I talk to grownups, I take my hat and glasses off," Norvell said, in reference to Sanders's penchant for baseball caps and sunglasses.

Within a day, Sanders had handed Blender shades to every member of his team, and, seemingly, every celebrity who showed up to support him on game day. Blender reported $1.2 million in retail sales within a day of Norvell's jab at Sanders.

Developing new markets

Now here comes the NFL, a megalith of a sports league with aggressive revenue goals and a domestic fan base that's as close as possible to maxed out. According to SponsorPulse, 70 per cent of American males and 53 per cent of females engage with the NFL already, so reaching the remainder is the current challenge.

To develop new markets, the NFL takes games overseas. This Sunday, the Falcons and Jaguars will kick off at Wembley Stadium in London. In early November, Kansas City (along with Swift? Maybe? Hopefully?) will travel to Germany to face the Miami Dolphins.

The league is also cultivating younger fans by partnering with Nickelodeon and Disney to produce kid-friendly alternate broadcasts, even though it's a mismatch waiting to happen. If you can imagine how Spongebob and Patrick Star would react in real time to Aaron Rodgers's Achilles tendon snapping like a guitar string, or Nick Chubb's knee getting wrenched 90 degrees in the wrong direction, then you can see the limits of this attempted crossover.

Enter Swift, whose most recent tour may have grossed more than $2 billion US in ticket sales, with her foolproof method to attract new fans.

Just show up and cheer.

Over the summer Kelce and his brother, Jason, who plays centre for the Philadelphia Eagles, name-checked the pop star on their podcast, and some public flirtation ensued. Fast forward to last week, and there she was, posted up next to Kelce's mom, cheering like a day-one fan as Kansas City showed the Bears how NFL football is supposed to look.

And Swift, like Kansas City's offence when it's in rhythm, puts up big numbers.

This instagram post, where she teases a Vogue magazine interview discussing her endorsement of Joe Biden in 2020, has racked up three million likes. More than one commentator has posited, with a straight face, that Swift can swing the 2024 election.

Ripple effects

The first ripple effect of her luxury box appearance: playoff-level TV ratings for a one-sided regular season game.

The second? The merchandise company Fanatics reported a 400 per cent increase in Travis Kelce jersey sales.

Before you accuse Kelce, with a base salary of $11.25 million this season, of using this relationship to get rich(er) off jersey sales, remember merchandise money doesn't flow to individual players. It's all part of the "Football Related Revenue" that the league and union split in collective bargaining, money that returns to the players in salary. When Football Related Revenue rises, so does the salary cap.

But if Swift keeps showing up, and jersey sales keep rising, who knows what could happen? Maybe she helps move enough Kelce gear to raise the ceiling on payroll.

Afterward, we can add it to her already impressive resumé.

Forty-time American Music Award winner.

Presidential election influencer.

One-woman economic stimulus package.