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Can Taylor and Travis help NFL draw more Gen Z and female fans?

By HOWARD FENDRICH, AP National Writer
Published: October 9, 2023, 6:00am

Eager as the National Football League has been to cater to the recent public fixation with Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, it’s certainly not taking any credit for creating the outsized storyline that has emerged around the pop superstar and the Kansas City Chiefs tight end.

“Not orchestrated by the NFL,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy assured The Associated Press with a chuckle during a chat on the phone about what is becoming known as “ Tay Tay and Trav,” a topic few seemed to be able to get enough of initially, whether football diehards or Swifties, whether via TV or TikTok.

The protagonists largely have remained mum about their actual status since Swift began attending Kelce’s games 1½ weeks ago, though Kelce did admit after practice Friday in Kansas City that “everybody is having fun with it.”

“You’ve got a lot of people that care about Taylor and for good reason,” he said, without getting into the details of their budding relationship.

But the sport providing the backdrop, and its TV partners, have not been shy about trying to capitalize on the “situationship” and gain new fans, particularly members of Gen Z and more women — although marketing experts are skeptical there will be much of a bump in the long run.

“There is not going to be a ‘Pre-Taylor Swift Era’ and a ‘Post-Taylor Swift Era’ for the NFL. … It’s a momentary fascination,” said Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents, a consulting firm.

“I believe in love and I wish Taylor luck. But … it’s very unlikely people would go to a game to see Taylor and be like, ‘Oh, I had no idea this is what football was about! My gosh! I love it now!’” Brooks said. “Or let’s say they get married: Taylor is going to show up at games and it’s going to become routine.”

The NFL wants in

Still, naturally, the league wants in on the fun. A team of folks monitoring social media see where it could be part of the phenomenon as various memes and trends took off after Swift watched a game in Kansas City alongside Kelce’s mom on Sept. 24.

“It was a perfect storm of pop culture and sports colliding in a really positive way, with two incredibly passionate fan bases merging together and interacting in ways that they hadn’t before. So for us, it’s fantastic,” said Ian Trombetta, the NFL’s senior vice president of social, influencer and content marketing.

“Hopefully those — especially the young women — that have now gained an interest in not only Travis Kelce, but the NFL more broadly, can stay with us throughout the year and years to come,” Trombetta said.

Not that the NFL thinks there’s a ton of room for improvement: It says 47% of its fans are women, and it’s the No. 1 sport among people ages 8 to 24.

The league has worked for several years to court women, including by promoting flag football or touting female hires for teams’ coaching staffs, as negative developments turned people off: domestic violence cases involving players; misogyny and sexual harassment during former Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder’s tenure; an investigation launched in May by New York and California prosecutors into accusations of sexual harassment and racial discrimination at NFL corporate offices.

“Those are each individual situations,” Trombetta said. “We’ve got amazing women throughout the league … and at the end of the day, we’re proud of where we’re going as a league and the values that we try to uphold each and every day.”

Yet it certainly can’t hurt to have Swift, an icon of female empowerment, bringing people to the party.

A year ago, she became the first artist with songs in each of the top 10 spots on the Billboard 100. Overwhelming demand to see her current tour — which resumes in two weeks — resulted in a Ticketmaster debacle. Her Instagram following of more than 270 million is nearly 10 times the NFL’s 28.4 million; Kelce’s has approached 4 million lately, thanks to a boost from the recent publicity.

This celebrity-athlete pairing is more powerful than many that preceded it. Attribute that to Swift’s broad appeal, not just in the U.S. but globally, and to Kelce’s status as the NFL’s best player at his position and the second-best player, behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, on the reigning Super Bowl champions. Add the current state of non-stop coverage via cell phones, and the hype surely surpasses Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe (go ahead and Google them, kids), David Beckham and Posh Spice, the now-divorced Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen, and so on.

FINDING THE RIGHT ‘STORY OF THE WEEK’

This time, there also was a vacuum of viewing choices because of Hollywood strikes.

“There’s always a ‘story of the week’ now, and no matter what it is, you have to figure out how to fit into it. It was ‘Barbie’ for a while. It was Beyoncé over the summer,” said marketing guru Joe Favorito, who counts NFL Media among his past clients.

“If you are in professional sports, that’s what you want,” he said. “You want to be not just for the core fans. You want to be for everyone, anywhere, who has to talk about this the next day, because they don’t want to feel like they’re missing out.”

One issue with courting the Gen Z cohort (11 to 26), Brooks said, is that it’s a group more openly concerned with authenticity than earlier generations. So the NFL can be “seen as self-serving,” Brooks said, and “risk looking kind of pathetic and cringy.”

Indeed, the oversaturation already is starting to bother some.

The NFL’s Instagram feed, for example, briefly placed Swift lyrics in its bio and noted the Chiefs are 2-0 with her on hand. Even Kelce and his brother, Philadelphia Eagles center Jason, noted how many times NBC cameras cut to Swift at Sunday night’s game between Kansas City and the New York Jets — sometimes celebrating, sometimes interacting with famous friends and sometimes, well, just standing there.

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“Is the NFL overdoing it?” Jason asked Travis on an episode of their podcast released Wednesday. “What is your honest opinion? Take away your feelings for Taylor.”

That drew a chuckle from Travis, who said it can be fun for viewers when celebrities are shown at games but agreed with his brother’s premise, saying: “They’re overdoing it a little bit, especially my situation.”

On the other hand, as former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson put it: “You ride the horse as long as it’s available. We show (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones more than we probably need to during TV broadcasts, so why not show Taylor Swift?”

Pilson noted that NFL TV contracts already worth billions aren’t going to be renegotiated any time soon, but an uptick in ratings could be presented to advertisers to seek higher prices for commercials.

“I’ve been asked the question more than once: ‘What happens when and if they break up?’” the NFL’s Trombetta said. “I have no idea. But I hope they can stay together as long as possible.”

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