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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
During the first half of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Jumbotron at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas briefly cut away from the action on the field to show Taylor Swift chugging a beer in her luxury suite overlooking the stadium.
Swift was there, of course, to cheer on her boyfriend Travis Kelce and his Kansas City Chiefs, who won their second consecutive National Football League championship in dramatic extra time.
But the biggest winner of the evening was the NFL, by all measures the single greatest unifying live entertainment behemoth in the US. The league was given a tremendous gift when Swift began attending fixtures this year: ticket sales for some Chiefs games nearly tripled, and overall NFL ratings rose 7 per cent for the 2023 season.
It’s great news for the NFL, but the most powerful sports league in the richest country in the world should not be dependent upon the whims of a pop star’s social life to develop a deeper relationship with female fans.
The millions of young women in Swift’s fan base are of great benefit to the NFL: of the roughly 58 per cent of Americans who watch football each week, three-quarters are men over 50, according to a 2023 study by SponsorPulse.
Despite conspiracy rumours to the contrary, NFL leaders have admitted that the Taylor television traffic is just a happy accident. Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, told reporters last week that the NFL wasn’t clever enough to devise the Swift-Kelce romance even if they tried.
“I don’t think I’m that good of a scripter, or anybody on our staff,” he said. “Taylor is obviously a dynamo. Everything she touches, there are people following, so we count ourselves fortunate, we welcome it.”
Sports fans who arrived in Las Vegas last week ahead of the Super Bowl shared with me their reflections on what’s working — and not — for female audiences. Across the board, they said, they enjoy the interpersonal stories in sport.
“It’s all about how the team is functioning together,” says Lori Haddock, 55, a San Francisco 49ers fan from Omaha. “Football is a family thing to do . . . especially if you have something that you can watch together, that is so competitive and so fun.”
Like Swift, Haddock got into football through the relationships in her life: first watching Kansas City Chiefs games growing up with her father, and later switching allegiances to the 49ers when she met her husband. She says her daughter never caught the football bug growing up, but now aged 28, she’s recently embraced watching the sport with her partner.
Kiah Cresser, 27, and Ben Mathiou, 28, travelled to Vegas from Australia’s Gold Coast to attend their first Super Bowl after Mathiou, a professional rugby player, scored tickets a year ago. Cresser, dressed fashionably in a trenchcoat and knitted caramel top, tells me she wasn’t much of a sports fan until the Swift-Kelce relationship blossomed. “It’s a love story, how can you resist that?” she says.
As a result, she consumes NFL stories on TikTok, and says she will probably stay invested in the Chiefs regardless of whether Swift and Kelce stay together. Her primary interest, she says, is the cast of characters in and around the game, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his wife, Brittany. “It’s not really anything that the NFL is doing specifically,” she adds.
To be sure, the league is making an effort to develop fan interest among women; last year, flag football — a non-tackle version of the game open to all genders — was introduced as a high school sport in the state of California, in advance of the sport’s inclusion in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, thanks to some persuasion by the NFL. If women have an opportunity to play the game, the thinking goes, it will further endear football to them for life.
Such a strategy may pay off in the long run. In the meantime, American football is relying on images of Swift having the time of her life in her stadium box, high-fiving family members and cheering with her girlfriends. The message is a quietly revelatory one for some women: this is a space for your entertainment, too.