Thursday, February 22

A Taylor Swift love story: How pop icon is bringing a new, young audience to the NFL

Arrie Flathouse took her first steps to Taylor Swift’s hit song “Tim McGraw.”

The pop icon was a constant part of the now 16-year-old Arrie’s childhood as she grew up in the Houston area with two older sisters who adored Swift. Arrie came to love Swift, too, dressing up as her for Halloween and listening to her albums.

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Arrie never got much into football, though, despite having a mom, Kara, who spent her weekends tuned into college and NFL games. That included games played by the Chiefs since Kara, like Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, is a Texas Tech alum. Despite Kara’s attempts to get her daughters interested, football never clicked with Arrie, so Kara usually spent those weekend afternoons watching games alone.

But that changed last summer after Arrie saw clips of the “New Heights” podcast, on which one of the hosts, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, described his attempts to give Swift his number via a friendship bracelet.

The little exchange had quite an impact on Arrie.

Already a devoted listener to the podcast, Kara got so excited when her daughter started talking about the Kelce clips. Over the following months, social media worked its magic, and by the time Swift showed up to her first Chiefs game in late September, Arrie was tuned in.

“This is crazy,” Arrie said. “This isn’t Swifties’ theories. This is for real. So that’s when I started watching football because I was like, ‘If she’s gonna be at the games, I’ve got to see her.’”

Arrie has since tuned into pretty much every Chiefs game, embracing not only the Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce romance but the entire Kelce family. She’s watched Amazon Prime’s documentary about his brother, Eagles center Jason Kelce, became a devoted listener of the Kelce brothers’ “New Heights” podcast and even started watching Eagles games.

“Even if Taylor is not there, I think I enjoy (the game) a lot more,” said Arrie, whose parents promised to buy her a Travis Kelce jersey soon.

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Kara smiles listening to her daughter describe her newfound interest in a sport she bonded over with her own dad. Kara doesn’t want to push too hard, but she loves it when she sees Arrie’s head pop over the stair banister if she hears football on the TV. Much to Kara’s delight, that tends to lead to quality time together watching games with her daughter. It’s also led to questions about the sport itself.

“It’s been really fun for me,” said Kara, who posted a viral video in the fall about her glee that Swift finally converted her daughter to a football fan. “I love it.”

The Flathouse family isn’t an anomaly. Far from it. Swift’s arrival on the football stage has led to countless stories of football-loving parents bonding with their Swiftie kids. Even Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt is hearing them.

“I frequently have dads come up to me and say, ‘My 10- and 12-year-old daughters never used to watch football, but they now tell me anytime the Kansas City Chiefs are playing to tell them so they can watch,” Hunt said this week in Las Vegas, where the Chiefs are preparing to face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII. “I was at a function a little over a week ago and I had a woman, probably in her mid-20s, who came up to me, introduced herself as a Swiftie and told me her entire family is Dallas Cowboys fans and that she used to not follow football at all, but now she’s all-in on the Kansas City Chiefs. I think there are a lot of examples like that out there.”

One story just like that belongs to Todd Kale, a Cowboys fan who posted a now-viral video of his 11-year-old daughter Briley reciting football facts from the couch.

The Kale family lives near Houston. They’re Cowboys season-ticket holders and their five daughters love going to games. They know the big-name Dallas players but never really watched the game with their dad, instead embracing the atmosphere of a game day or just enjoying eating hot wings, their Sunday ritual, rather than engaging much with the actual football.

But Briley, the middle child of the family, grew up a Swift fan thanks to her older sisters and has passed the love for Swift onto her younger siblings. Todd wasn’t sure how Briley first learned of Swift’s connection to Kelce, but a few months back, he was watching a Sunday night game with his wife and realized Briley was in the living room. She started asking questions: What’s a safety? What’s a cornerback? How many points is a touchdown worth?

It didn’t take long for Todd to realize where this was coming from.

“It definitely intrigued her that somebody she really likes is now involved in something I really like,” Todd said.

Briley has since watched more Chiefs games and has picked up knowledge about the sport itself, absorbing it all.

“It’s every dad’s dream. … She liked football before, but I think she just liked the experience of it,” Todd said. “Now she’s learning more about the game.”

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Swift has been a storyline all season — with Kansas City winning nine of the 12 games she has attended — and the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run has only ratcheted that up a higher level.

“There’s no doubt her being a fan has put a more intense focus on the team than we would’ve had otherwise,” Hunt said. “It has opened up the fan base to a whole new demographic that we really didn’t have in young women. You’ve seen that in a lot of ways, specifically our TV ratings. They are much higher because of Taylor Swift being a part of the team, as Kelce says.”

Hunt’s not wrong about the TV ratings. Not only did the average number of viewers tuning into Chiefs regular-season prime-time games increase this season from the previous two (a 39.4 percent jump compared to last year alone), but so did the percentage of female viewers (up 3 percent), according to Nielsen. And that viewership jump has carried over to the postseason. The Chiefs’ divisional-round win over Buffalo averaged 50.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched divisional-round or wild-card game ever. The Chiefs’ victory over the Ravens was the most-watched AFC Championship Game ever, with an average of 55.47 million viewers tuning in.

The league’s social media team has played a big role in ushering in new audiences, as well. The team embraced Swift’s first game in September, trying to be conscious of all of the new eyeballs on their feeds while not going overboard, said Ian Trombetta, NFL SVP of social and influencer marketing.

That theme has remained consistent throughout the season, though the strategy varies depending on the platform, Trombetta said. With some of those that skew younger, like TikTok and Snapchat, there’s more reason to embrace Swifties with their posts.

“We’re also thinking about this in the sense of not just what we’re posting on social media, but also how our partners are covering it,” Trombetta said. “So that could be a broadcast partner. That could be a sponsor, etc. And when you take all that into totality, it can get pretty, pretty hot just in terms of the amount of coverage. And, so for us, I think it really was a reminder for us to take a broader view of all the coverage and understand our role in it.”

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Swift’s emergence onto the NFL scene has helped lead to record-setting engagement, with triple-digit growth in consumption across various platforms, per Trombetta. Their audience continues to skew younger and diversify in male/female split as well, he said.

Swift’s Super Bowl attendance is up in the air thanks to her Eras Tour stop in Tokyo, If Swift is there to watch Kelce’s Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers, the league social team will devote some time to her arrival and reactions, but with so much happening around the Super Bowl between the football and the spectacle, it won’t just be the Taylor Swift social feed.

“I think we’ve gotten to the point now though, that by and large, it’s been a very celebratory thing,” Trombetta said. “And certainly a positive for the league, a positive for the Chiefs, a positive for the Kelce family, and obviously with Travis, and I think it’s been a positive for Taylor as well. So we’ll continue to lean into it in different ways, but also be respectful of their relationship. So not invading any privacy and looking to take cues where some of the lines might be on the amount of coverage and also keep the game front and center. That’s really important for us.”

Still, there’s no doubt the league has brought in new fans thanks to Swift, as the Flathouse and Kale families can attest.

The Flathouse family on Sunday will be hosting an “I’m in My Super Bowl Era” themed party in honor of the Chiefs-Swift crossover.

There will be a giant friendship bracelet garland along with appropriately themed food and drink, including an “electric” mocktail, in honor of a word Kelce likes to use a lot.

But what about next season when the Swift magic may have run its course? It doesn’t matter for Arrie, who plans on still tuning into NFL games.

“I feel like I’m hooked now,” Arrie said.

— The Athletic’s Nate Taylor contributed to this report.

(Photo illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic;
Photos: Jamie Squire, Patrick Smith and Sarah Stier / Getty Images)