Taylor Swift, the NFL, and two routes to cultural dominance

An extra-super Super Bowl is in store.

Sometime on Sunday, the white-hot center of the biggest spectator events of the past year will arrive in Las Vegas. Their every move will be tracked by relentless media and even more relentless fans.

Also, a football game will be played.

There will be no shortage of storylines at Super Bowl LVIII, which — I’ll save you the Google search — kicks off at 6:30 pm ET on February 11. Can Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes win their second-straight title? Will Mr. Irrelevant — San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy — strike a blow for anyone who was ever picked last in gym class and take home the Lombardi trophy? Will Las Vegas sports books clean up on the $16 billion — more than the total GDP of Madagascar — Americans are projected to bet on the big game? (My predictions: yes, no, and absolutely.)

What will make this Super Bowl so important, at least for many of the more than 120 million Americans who will probably tune in to watch the game, will be the expected presence of one Taylor Alison Swift. A brief recap for anyone who until recently took up residence under a rock: This past fall, Swift started dating Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and began showing up to his games. People — everyone, really, but especially guys like this — went crazy.

For all their differences — Swift ruthlessly mines her emotions for her music; emotions can result in a 15-yard penalty in the NFL — what Swift and pro football have in common is sheer cultural weight.

Swift’s Eras Tour is the highest-grossing concert tour ever, taking in more than the next two biggest 2023 tours combined. She broke the record for most global streams ever on Spotify at more than 26.1 billion in 2023 — or more than three streams for every human on Earth — and had four of the 10 most-consumed albums this year, all without actually releasing an album of new music. When she made history with her fourth Album of the Year Grammy last week, it was just one more jewel in the tiara.

On the other side, the NFL is to the rest of the entertainment industry what 6-foot-8, 365-pound Philadelphia Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata would be to a peewee football player. Of the 100 most-watched broadcasts in 2023, NFL games accounted for 93 of them, up from 82 in 2023 and 72 in 2020. The NFL pulls in about as much revenue as the NBA and MLB combined. Of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world, 30 of them are NFL teams. By just about every metric, the already dominant NFL is going up and to the right.

Swift and the NFL are each bigger than big. But what’s really illustrative of American entertainment today is how different their paths to the top have been.

No one player is bigger than the NFL
If you check out SportsPro’s ranking of the 50 most marketable global athletes, you have to go all the way down to 35 — past NBA stars, F1 drivers, and soccer players — to get to an NFL player: Travis Kelce. And with all due respect to Kelce’s Hall of Fame career, I have a feeling that has more to do with his girlfriend than his 74 career touchdown receptions.