Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (2024)

When Taylor Swift said yes to Travis Kelce, it provided far more than a romantic diversion for the world’s biggest pop star and one of the greatest tight ends in football history.

Swift traffics in numbers beyond comprehension – a tour that generates $1 billion in domestic ticket sales, a clean sweep of Billboard’s Top 5, a 10-minute song topping the chart in an era of TikTok attention spans – but her greatest feat may arrive on Super Bowl Sunday.

She’ll give more than 115 million Americans something to talk about.

Forget the Thanksgiving dinner table. The Super Bowl party, the USA’s great secular gathering, might be the ultimate mélange of awkward connections, from the superfan annoyed they don’t have anyone with whom to talk Cover 2 or 12 Personnel, to the cultural wiseacre who somehow knows the backstory of every celebrity in every commercial, to the book club coordinator wondering why color of jersey doesn’t factor into the final score.

And then Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will drift back to pass, perhaps scramble out of trouble and sling the ball to No. 87 in red, and suddenly, everybody is in on the bit.

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See, Swift didn’t just collide her own brand into the cultural behemoth that is the NFL; she also dragged Kelce right into the country’s withering monoculture. And when the camera zooms in on an exultant Kelce and cuts to a cheering Swift in a private box (assuming she returns from a Tokyo tour date in time), the audience will be strangely united in a way no other player on the field or influencer in a commercial can do in the four hours surrounding that moment.

Everybody will know their names.

“She’s become a cultural touchstone, a kind of lingua franca topic that everybody can discuss safely and energetically,” says Brian Donovan, an associate chairperson of sociology at Kansas University who teaches The Sociology of Taylor Swift at the university in Kelce’s backyard. “I lived in Chicago in the 1990s during the height of the Bulls era, and I remember talking to complete strangers about them. The Bulls provided that cultural glue to everyone living in Chicago.

“I feel like Taylor Swift is doing the same thing – everybody has some kind of purchase on her celebrity. Everybody can talk about Taylor and Travis. It's remarkable having not experienced this in decades.”

For America’s ultimate power couple, owning the Super Bowl stage will mark a high point – though perhaps not the apex – of their household recognition.

Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (1)

A steady climb into ‘the stratosphere’

It has been nearly two decades since Swift’s self-titled major-label debut was released in 2006, beginning an evolution from country singer to pop star to multi-generational global powerhouse. Kelce’s rise to notoriety was far more deliberate: On Sept. 12, 2009, he caught the only pass of his freshman season at the University of Cincinnati, a 3-yard reception against Southeast Missouri State.

One night later, Swift’s infamous imbroglio with Kanye West unfolded after the rapper stormed the stage at MTV’s VMAs while Swift accepted an award.

Kelce simply went merrily about his business, missing his sophom*ore season because of a marijuana suspension that fortuitously made him a tight end for life, reveling in nap time and growing into an unstoppable pass-catching force.

A decade later and Kelce – born in 1989, just like Swift – has scored 93 touchdowns for the Chiefs, 19 in the playoffs, more than any active player. The Chiefs are aiming for their third Super Bowl title in the past five years, and Kelce has already been a Madison Avenue smash.

He’s often playing Robin to Mahomes’ Batman, such as in spots for State Farm Insurance and Subway. Yet even before Swift stepped onto his stage, Kelce had grown into a leading man, hosting "Saturday Night Live" last winter, appearing solo in ads for DirecTV and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, while co-starring with brother Jason and mother Donna in a Campbell’s Soup campaign.

The Kelce family has resonated coast to coast, Travis often citing their modest Cleveland Heights upbringing and riffing relatably with Jason on their "New Heights" podcast.

Nowadays, the podcast is practically de rigueur for elite or notorious athletes, from Tom Brady to Draymond Green to Mookie Betts. But Kelce has something else in his corner, and we’re only now experiencing the Swift effect on his celebrity.

According to Edison Podcast Metrics, "New Heights" did not rank among the USA’s top 100 podcasts in the second quarter of 2023. By the fourth quarter – by which time Kelce and Swift had been shipped – it ranked No. 6 and was No. 1 and 2 last week on Apple and Spotify, respectively.

And Sunday’s Super Bowl may elevate Kelce beyond any old Gronk and project him permanently into our living room.

“I do think this takes it to a completely different level,” says Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova’s School of Business. “Even though there seem to be people out there who don’t like seeing Taylor Swift at the football games, nonetheless she’s an absolute megastar, the top music star of this generation.

“Linking to that level of attention and a different fan base than is traditionally associated with hardcore NFL fans – that level of intensity with which a lot of young female viewers watching Chiefs games is something different.

“I think this puts him into the stratosphere.”

No matter who loses their minds along the way.

Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (2)

‘This is a love story’

Nobody knows if the “T&T” union will endure six more months, six years or six decades. If it is measured in years rather than months, the romance will have survived an initial trial by fire that has ranged from doubts about the relationship’s veracity to theories far less grounded in reality.

Sure, it seems a little convenient: A global star aligning with the NFL, her country’s most unstoppable entertainment entity (haven’t you seen the Nielsen ratings?), while canoodling with the sport’s dudeliest dude, an Everyman with a penchant to reach the end zone and the Super Bowl.

It is a significant coup for the NFL, which reported its strongest viewership among female fans – up 9% – since the league began tracking that metric in 2000. It has connected elusive Gen Z and millennial fans to the game, no small feat for a global behemoth that nonetheless is obsessed with “future-proofing” its industry.

When the symbiosis is too perfect, people will wonder.

“If you could draw the playbook of how to generate young female interest, this is what you would do,” says Kim Whitler, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “It just so happens to be a fortuitous situation for the NFL. For them to end up in the Super Bowl – what are the odds of that?

“This is a tailor-made way to drive affinity among young women. I tend not to think it was that manipulated. It just turned out that way.”

Veteran Swift watchers are convinced this thing is real.

Donovan, the Kansas professor who is writing a book tentatively titled "Swiftie: An Anatomy of Fandom," acknowledges that going steady with Swift “will catapult (Kelce) to a new level.” But he has observed the courtship and the romance from a close distance, beginning with Kelce’s attempts to get a friendship bracelet with his phone number to Swift when the Eras tour came to Kansas City, to their postgame dates around town, to the “TnT” tennis bracelets (surprisingly affordable!) they exchanged and that Swift wore to the AFC championship game.

Swift, believed to have reached billionaire status in recent months, could have spent Christmas and New Year’s Eve in any corner of the globe. Yet the Chiefs’ schedule had them playing home games on both occasions.

And so Swift was spotted not in New York or Rio or Milan for the holidays, but rather Arrowhead Stadium, with its picturesque view of 18-wheelers whizzing past on I-70 in Missouri.

“Little details like that make me think it’s a real relationship,” Donovan says. “This is a love story.”

It is a far simpler explanation than many kicking around various news ecosystems. That Taylor Swift is a psy-op. That a presidential endorsem*nt is forthcoming. That the NFL is rigged. (If so, how much did they pay Buffalo Bills kicker Tyler Bass to push his game-tying field goal attempt wide right?)

It’s all a little extra, particularly given Swift’s relatively anodyne political stances. And it’s perhaps a little ironic, given that the Swift-Kelce pop singer/football star union would seem to be the heteronormative Super Bowl for a political faction keen on rolling back rights for the LGBTQ+ community.

“I think the right-wing political figures criticizing Taylor sound like the so-called 'beta males' they allegedly abhor,” Donovan says. “That the 25 seconds they show Taylor on TV is causing this meltdown that’s all out of proportion to the actual influence she has – on the game, the viewership.”

Stepping into this maelstrom is Kelce, who in addition to blocking out that exterior noise must also not run afoul of the Swifties, who are most protective of their idol. Kelce is faster than any linebacker and bigger than any defensive back yet would be powerless to get bodied in song should the Swift union dissolve poorly.

Yet the upsides certainly outweigh the risk of an ignoble exit.

Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (3)

Elusive fame

In any celebrity pairing, there’s almost always a power dynamic based on their relative fame. Whitler likens Swift-Kelce to the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman pairing, which bloomed out of their starring roles in 1990’s "Days of Thunder" and subsequent marriage.

Though Kidman had a burgeoning and established acting career to that point – perhaps not fully analogous to Kelce’s NFL exploits - her decadelong marriage to Cruise certainly amplified her reach.

In this modern era, the Swift Effect on Kelce is more measurable – and eye-opening.

“What’s happened since September, when Taylor was first spotted at one of his games, has really shot him into a new stratosphere as a celebrity,” says Charles Rolston, senior consultant of client strategy at Navigate, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm.

As January turned to February, Rolston tracked a pair of 137-day time spans that we’ll call Before Swift and After Swift, marked by the time she first showed up at a Chiefs game:

Before Swift: Kelce had 2.7 million Instagram followers and averaged 3,000 mentions a day across all media – TV, radio, online and social.

After Swift: Kelce’s Instagram following more than doubled to 5.7 million, and he has averaged 35,000 mentions a day across media.

It also vaulted Kelce into an exclusive recognition rent district. A YouGov fourth-quarter survey placed Kelce’s fame – or percentage of people who had heard of him – at 72%. That trails only Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (77%) and teammate Mahomes (75%) among active NFL players and puts him just behind NBA superstars Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (both 76%).

It’s a particularly impressive feat given that Kelce’s largest brand-building has occurred in the era of utter cultural stratification.

Remember Snooki and Mike, aka "The Situation," from the MTV hit "Jersey Shore"?

Rolston is quick to note that they haven’t been relevant in roughly a decade, yet The Situation equals Kelce’s 72% recognition rate, while Snooki’s 81% ranks higher than any active athlete besides LeBron James (94%) and Tiger Woods (93%). All trail Swift’s 96%.

Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (4)

Yep, it’s actually hard to be famous in the 21st century – but Kelce has a fighting chance.

“In reality, there’s still a long way to go to break through and get into that full A-list status. There’s a big difference between where Kelce’s at and where Taylor’s at,” Rolston says. “If he doesn’t hurt Taylor and in turn get the Swifties unleashing on him, I think he does have that cultural blank check.

“I think he’s done all the right things already.”

Meanwhile, get ready to adjust those numbers. The Super Bowl will almost certainly surpass the record 115 million who watched the 2023 game. With the rest of the NFL in hibernation, Kelce will surpass more peers in recognition, what with the Eras Tour returning stateside, Swift's new album due in April, and the tight end exchanging his red jersey for the red carpet.

And come fall, it will be even harder to get into Donovan’s class at Kansas, the pop star still not finding her ceiling – while raising it for the local hero.

“I think ambitious people find other ambitious people attractive,” he says, “and they are combining their joint cultural capital into something huge. And I think he is pondering life after the NFL.

“And having the world’s most famous person as your girlfriend can only help you in whatever career you decide to go into.”

Insights, advice, suggestions, feedback and comments from experts

Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce: A Cultural Phenomenon

Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce's relationship has captured the attention of millions of people, combining the worlds of music and football in a unique way. Taylor Swift, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, and Travis Kelce, a highly accomplished tight end in football, have both achieved remarkable success in their respective fields. Their union has not only brought together their individual fan bases but has also created a cultural phenomenon that transcends traditional boundaries.

Taylor Swift's Achievements

Taylor Swift is known for her incredible achievements in the music industry. She has had numerous chart-topping hits, a tour that generated $1 billion in domestic ticket sales, and a strong presence on platforms like TikTok. Swift's success has made her a cultural touchstone, with people from all walks of life being able to discuss her celebrity status [[1]].

Travis Kelce's Rise to Fame

Travis Kelce's journey to fame has been more deliberate. He has established himself as one of the greatest tight ends in football history, with numerous touchdowns and a significant impact on the Kansas City Chiefs. Kelce's success on the field has also translated into success off the field, with endorsem*nts and appearances in commercials. He has become a leading man in his own right, hosting "Saturday Night Live" and starring in various advertising campaigns [[2]].

The Impact of Their Relationship

The relationship between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce has brought together two different worlds: music and football. Their union has not only captured the attention of their individual fan bases but has also attracted a broader audience. The Super Bowl, in particular, provides a platform for their combined star power to shine. When the camera zooms in on Kelce and cuts to Swift in the audience, the audience will be united in a way that no other player or influencer can achieve during the game [[3]].

The Swift Effect on Kelce's Celebrity

Taylor Swift's influence on Travis Kelce's celebrity status has been significant. Since their relationship became public, Kelce's Instagram following has more than doubled, and he has received increased media attention. He has become more recognizable among the general public, with a recognition rate of 72% in a YouGov survey. This places him among the top NFL players in terms of fame and recognition [[4]].

The Future of Their Relationship

While the future of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce's relationship is uncertain, their impact on each other's lives and careers is undeniable. Their union has brought them both increased recognition and has created a cultural phenomenon that extends beyond their individual achievements. As they continue to navigate their relationship in the public eye, they have the potential to reach even greater heights of fame and success [[5]].

In conclusion, the relationship between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce has captivated the public's attention, combining the worlds of music and football in a unique way. Their union has brought together their individual fan bases and created a cultural phenomenon that transcends traditional boundaries. As they continue to navigate their relationship, they have the potential to achieve even greater fame and success.

Travis Kelce was one of NFL's dudeliest dudes. Taylor Swift shot him into the stratosphere. (2024)
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