Fandoms are a powerful economic force. These activated communities can have a huge impact on sales and businesses. And any business worth their bottom line should understand that the opportunity to leverage a fandom is huge. Anyone who has not yet realized this can see it in action presently with “The Swift Effect,” Taylor Swift’s unbelievable ability to boost sales and engagement… just by showing up. She’s currently dating Kansas City Chiefs tight-end Travis Kelce and there are several players—on and off the field—reaping the benefits.
Among the big winners is the NFL, who has tried—often unsuccessfully—to increase their female fanbase. They’ve been panned for “shrink it, pink it,” where they just made male-fitting jerseys smaller…and pink for women, and for trying to woo women with online recipes for “homegating.” Those efforts may not have paid off, but the fortuitous attendance of Swift at one of Kelce’s games led to 27 million in viewership, the most for a Sunday night game since the last Super Bowl—and much of that spike was due to increased viewership from young women. Her presence also led to a spike in the sales of her beau’s No. 87 jersey—a spike of 400%.
Additionally, viewership also hit a new peak, with a 53% increase in female viewers aged 12 to 17, a 34% increase in female viewers above 35, and a 24% increase in female viewers aged 18 to 24, compared to the season-to-date average of Sunday Night Football. Swift’s fans—or Swifties, as they’re called—now seem to be showing up for Kelce as well. This crossover is clearly highly lucrative and with this much scoring happening off the field, it’s worth examining it closely so we can learn how to replicate it. There are three key steps to fanbase cross-pollination: getting the fans, keeping the fans and engaging the fans.
Find fans “a way in”
To lure fans in the first place, we need to give them a way in, something they like and understand. Taylor Swift fans who are new to football didn’t grow up watching football. If they cared about football, they’d already be watching it. What they’ve been needing is a reason to care about football. Pink shirts weren’t going to do that for them, nor were recipes. But Swift’s fans care about Swift and now, Swift cares about football.
“[Taylor Swift’s] stature is such that when she does something people follow,” Marcus Collins, professor of marketing at Michigan Ross School of Business, told Yahoo Finance. “She’s influencing a group of people and those people are influencing each other and other people. There’s a network effect that’s at play.”
Collins is right about that, and also, his story isn’t the whole story. As Eve Weston, professor of immersive storytelling at Los Angeles Film School puts it, “When men watch football, there are characters—the players—and there is a story—the game. Essentially, it’s a war story.” But Swifties are all about the love story—ever since her hit single by that name. So, when their favorite character shows up on ESPN as the Juliet to Kelce’s Romeo, Swifties are primed to tune in.
Make fans feel at home
The morning after a game that Swift attended, the NFL had posted about Swift 34 times across all their social channels, generating a whopping 170 million impressions—a.k.a. a watch-time of more than 23 years! Kelce’s brother Jason asked, on their podcast, “Is the NFL overdoing it?” Kelce replied, “They’re overdoing it a little bit, especially my situation.” That being said, the game between the Bears and Chiefs saw a 63% jump in viewership among women aged 18 to 49.
While it might seem like overkill to Kelce, showing Taylor on screen and using her song lyrics to promote the games makes Swifties feel at home while watching content that would otherwise be foreign. They may come for the love story, but if there are no new plot developments, they’re not going to stick around.
Former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said, “You ride the horse as long as it’s available. We show (Dallas Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones more than we probably need to during TV broadcasts, so why not show Taylor Swift?” While that’s an excellent point, there are actual reasons to show Taylor Swift. Every micro-expression while she watches Kelce on the field is a part of this love story’s plot. And the “B Story”—or secondary plotline—of this love story is the relationship forming in the stands between Swift and Kelce’s mother.
Having a place for Swifties to follow the plotlines “off-screen” is handy, too. They’re used to following their “would-be Juliet” on social media, and now they’re following her beau, too. Kelce’s Instagram follower count has shot up by 1.3 million in the weeks since the rumors began of a link between him and Swift. Swifties certainly seem to be feeling at home. Clayton Durant, founder of CAD Management, a music management and entertainment consulting firm, commented that, [Kelce’s] stock in terms of being a sponsor-able athlete has quintupled.”
Give fans reasons to stay engaged
Professor Collins asks the right question. “What is it about these people, beyond their affinity for Taylor Swift, that the NFL could program around? That’s the big question,” he said. Getting the fans and keeping the fans presents an opportunity to understand this new fan base and engage in meaningful ways to keep their attention.
Right now, the biggest offer and biggest success in that category is Kelce’s podcast, a “straight from the source” opportunity for Swifties’ to listen for updates. His “New Heights” podcast, which he hosts with his brother, shot to No. 1 on Apple podcasts.
Kelce’s alma mater is jumping in the game with limited edition merch, and Etsy artists have had the clever notion to make jerseys that put Swift’s name with Kelce’s number. But it remains to be seen if this is enough to keep fans engaged. It may take more than shirts in the long term. Durant commented that the NFL might need to make changes to its in-game productions and/or attract different types of advertisers if it wants to keep Swifties around. Weston’s advice, “Ask yourself what kinds of stories they’re interested in,” is in line with that.
It goes both ways
To authentically engage with fandoms, brands need to be highly aware of what’s happening on social media and may need to engage in some trend mining. While Swift and Kelce are so obviously in the spotlight, not every opportunity for audience crossover fits as snugly as a size 8 Croc. But it’s worth paying attention because fanbase crossover is just that, a crossover. Recent weeks have also been an equally lucrative period for Swift: her high-profile appearances have boosted her own social media followers and Spotify music streams. Since the dating rumors first began in mid-September, Swift’s monthly listeners increased by 2.25% and she’s seen a 1.12% follower increase on Instagram, a 1.45% boost on YouTube, and a significant 5.37% jump on TikTok.
While one could argue that Swift hardly needs help keeping people’s attention, and if you’ve been paying attention, we can anticipate how she’ll keep those football fans around. Kelce was the NFL fans’ “way in” to Swift. Swift has been wearing jerseys and eating fried finger foods—and Heinz helped football fans have an opportunity to eat just like her, making them feel at home with the pop star. And now Swift just needs to give Kelce’s fans a reason to stay engaged; if she doesn’t give them an actual engagement, she’ll likely be belting out some football-themed lyrics sometime soon. After all, Swift doesn’t need a playbook when it comes to fanbases; she’s the coach.