It’s an intersection of football, pop culture, social media and politics, and on Sunday, we’ve all got a front-row seat.
The relationship between pop superstar Taylor Swift and Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce will be on full display at one of the most-watched television events of the year as the Chiefs take on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII.
Their romance (and Swift’s appearances in NFL stadium suites) have dominated social and traditional media over the past several months and have even been a popular talking point for in-game broadcasters.
“I think people are really into it because they seem to come from different worlds, though I don’t know that they necessarily do,” says Dr. Brent Cottle, Pop Culture instructor and chair, General Arts and Science at Lethbridge College. “Swift has been very open about her past relationships, and they’ve all come from a similar sort of world – actors or people from popular music – but Kelce is different, and people are fascinated with it.”
Add to the mix political partisanship, emerging conspiracy theories to explain their romance, and social media platforms that give fans, more than ever before, a sense of connectedness, and it’s easy to see why the relationship has captured the attention of the masses, he says.
While sports purists may scoff at the spectacle (and bemoan broadcast coverage of the singer at Chiefs games), Cottle says the NFL itself is likely happy with the extra attention it’s getting from Swifties and anyone else curious about the couple.
“They’ll take any fans they can get,” he says. “The Super Bowl is kind of an example of that because everybody, even if they aren’t watching the game, will eat and drink and hang out with friends and watch the advertisements and the halftime show. It’s like an unofficial national holiday, even in Canada.”
Dr. Kevin Smith, dean, Centre for Business, Arts and Sciences, follows the NFL and is a dedicated Green Bay Packers fan. He says it’s almost impossible to avoid the hype surrounding Swift and Kelce as, “the buildup to any Chiefs game is now whether Swift will attend rather than the usual analysis.”
On the plus side, he says, “my daughter and I now have a shared interest to talk about, as I try to explain the rules of football to her.”
Another reason for the NFL to embrace the current media attention, according to Cottle, is that it’s distracting people, if only temporarily, from the issues that are constant in football today – violence and the effects of violence.
Cottle, whose research has explored how NFL broadcasts can disassociate fans from the violence of the game, says spectators don’t fully understand how rough it is because they see so much of it through a television screen. As part of his research, Cottle travelled to several NFL games earlier in his career and asked players for their thoughts on how technological advances have affected the game and viewers’ interpretations of the images they see on TV.
“Roy Williams, who was a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, said to me, ‘I wish there was a movie of me getting up on a Monday morning, and just how many aches and pains I have,’ but instead everybody gets this really slickly produced, really interesting, really dynamic video of what’s happening,” says Cottle. “I think that’s one of the reasons the NFL likes [the attention from the Swift - Kelce relationship] … this big pop cultural moment distracts people from thinking about whatever effects the game might have.”
It’s so distracting that a game to crown the champion of the biggest professional sports league in North America is about to be played in Las Vegas – the entertainment capital of the world – and the athletes’ achievements (including Kelce’s) are a secondary story.
“I feel slightly sorry for him,” says Smith. “Media have tended to overlook the fact that Travis Kelce is one of the best players of all time at his position.”
Even Super Bowl-related headlines, like Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes vying for his third championship, or 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy (picked last in the 2022 draft and dubbed “Mr. Irrelevant”) making the final in his second season, have taken a backseat to the couple’s relationship, or as Cottle puts it, “North America’s biggest media spectacle.”
As for Sunday, Cottle insists he doesn’t have a favourite NFL team and just wants to enjoy a “really close game” while taking in the hype that is Super Bowl – the halftime show, the 30-second commercials that cost about $7 million each, and new to the fold this year, sightings of Taylor Swift.
Smith will also be watching. He says, “I only cheer for the Packers, but there are some teams I will always root against. I’m not biased — I don’t care who beats the 49ers.”