I’ve never been a “sports person.” I didn’t marry a “sports person.” I most likely don’t even know when a game is on, even when that game takes place on Super Bowl Sunday.
My (and my husband’s) total lack of interest in sports has been an established fact and long-running joke in my family. On Christmas in 2022, my brother, a huge sports fan, gave my kids an official Memphis Grizzlies jersey. They had no reaction. None. They didn’t know who the player or team was or even what sport the team played. Their lackluster response and my brother’s incredulous irritation led him (at my urging) to take the gift back because such a nice piece of paraphernalia would go to waste in our sports-less household.
The caveat to this disinterest is a love for sports-related entertainment. Television and movies about sports, documentaries on athletes and global competitions such as the Olympics — I want the grit of “King Richard,” the inspiration of “Ted Lasso” and the insider politics of “Full Swing,” even though I don’t watch tennis, soccer or golf.
I love underdogs, superhuman feats of achievement, once-in-a-lifetime moments and the personal, behind-the-scenes interviews and backstories that engender a downhill slalom or synchronized high dive with meaning. Even I, the person who attended only a single quarter of a football game the entire time I was in college, watched Netflix’s “Quarterback” and Prime Video’s “Kelce.”
But I don’t watch sports — at least, that was the case until September last year.
Specifically, Sept. 24, the day Taylor Swift showed up at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, to sit in a luxury suite next to Travis Kelce’s mother, Donna Kelce, and watch the Kansas City Chiefs play the Chicago Bears. That string of proper nouns would have been meaningless to me if Swift hadn’t left the stadium in Kelce’s “getaway car” and further added speculation about their rumored relationship at the time. Just like that, a new football fan was born — and I wasn’t the only one.
Swifties texted their dads and brothers, googled football terms and rules, bought jerseys (Travis Kelce’s jersey sales increased almost 400% following that game), showed up at games with Swift-inspired signs and even tuned into “New Heights,” a football podcast with Travis Kelce and his brother, Jason Kelce. We also listened to “sports people” try to explain that, actually, Swift didn’t put Kelce on the map, the athlete having amassed his own huge fanbase by being one of the best tight ends of all time.
As a self-proclaimed Swiftie, I was infatuated with watching the football season unfold like a real-life rom-com between “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince.” I was tuning in for the 25 seconds of Swift’s reactions that I’d see during the three-hour games, infatuated with her outfits, expressions, cheers and friendships with other WAGs (which I now know means wives and girlfriends of players).
I can’t pinpoint when it changed — when I began tuning in as much for Swift as for the game itself. But I know this transformation didn’t occur in a vacuum.
During the fall, my world was off balance. I was in the middle of moving and parenting two young children. Despite having had surgery 15 months ago for endometriosis, I was frequently debilitated because of my worsening symptoms. I was also feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of large-scale problems, especially climate change, abortion rights, gun reform and a huge increase in local crime that weighed down daily life. Because of extreme weather patterns that limited my kids’ ability to play outside, the fear I carried every morning when I dropped them off at preschool and the local anxiety of pumping gas or walking through the grocery store parking lot alone, life felt fragile.
Swift cheers from a suite as the Kansas City Chiefs play the Chicago Bears at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium on Sept. 24, in Kansas City.
Historically, the way I cope with life’s challenges — healthy or not — is to immerse myself in the world of a TV show that I love. However, because of the writers strike, I didn’t have the weekly dose of new content that has long anchored my life. There were no comfort comedy watches of “Abbott Elementary” on Wednesdays or “Grey’s Anatomy” on Thursdays. Sure, there were shows being released on streaming platforms, but it wasn’t the same as the anticipation of watching one of “my shows.”
I never expected football to fill this void. With each game, I became more interested in the other Chiefs players on the field, such as running back Isiah Pacheco, kicker Harrison Butker and cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Even when the Chiefs had a string of tough losses, I kept watching. I waited to see what play head coach Andy Reid would call and if the offense could match the performance of the defense.
After games, I found myself discussing what happened on the field in the same way I’d analyze what happened in an operating room at Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital.
One day, in a moment so quintessentially American it felt clichéd, I was talking to my neighbor over the fence about the Chiefs.
“Are you really talking about football?” my husband asked as he poked his head out the backdoor where my neighbor and I were. I shrugged off his disbelief — football was becoming fun.
I suddenly understood the water cooler talk: the assumption that another person also tuned in and watched “the game” to be entertained in a way that connected them to a team and fanbase that encompasses neighbors, coworkers and kids’ teachers. Watching the Chiefs gave me the non-internet camaraderie of televised content before streaming took over that I so desperately miss.
Until last September, I’d never really considered the entertainment value of sports. But now I do. Players become characters. Plays become subplots. Games become stories. Seasons weave together narratives that we break apart, overanalyze and discuss with people in a way that impacts us the same way scripted television does.
While I still worry about the overlap between football and domestic violence and players’ risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy after being hit week after week, I am beginning to understand America’s obsession with the sport — and it’s all because of Swift.
“Yes, she somehow made one of America’s most popular things — football — even more popular,” Sam Lansky wrote in his December profile of Swift for Time’s Person of the Year. It’s true. While Swift may have pissed off some “dads, Brads, and Chads,” she’s also grown the Chiefs’ female audience “leaps and bounds,” increased the Chiefs’ value to an estimated $331.5 million and contributed to huge rating spikes for games she attended. (For instance, the Chiefs-Dolphins Wild Card game on Peacock last month set the record for the “most-streamed live event in U.S. history.”)
Swift is the reason I first tuned in, but I never expected I’d still be here, 12 going on 13 games later. I never thought I’d be talking to my neighbor, brother or stepdad about “the game.” I never expected my kids would become as excited to watch the “red team” as me.
This Christmas, my stepdad gave me my first piece of sports paraphernalia — a Chiefs jacket. Unlike the Grizzlies jersey from 2022, this was gleefully accepted and immediately donned. My daughter absconded with it within minutes, wearing it while we watched the Chiefs Christmas Day game, the first time Swift’s entire immediate family (including her brother, Austin, who was dressed as Santa) attended with her.
Of course, a large part of my infatuation is still Swift and her “love story,” which has cemented itself in our cultural memory. Hopefully, she’ll make it back from her tour date in Japan to attend the Super Bowl. If not, I’ll still be watching.
I want to see what happens with the first team I’ve ever followed. I’m too new of a fan to consider myself a true member of Chiefs Kingdom, but I plan to keep standing on the outskirts, enjoying the last live broadcast of the season before “my shows” return for their newest seasons later this month.
And, of course, I’m hoping for another installment of my favorite couple and another moment to add meaning to a game that I’m just learning to appreciate.