Is Taylor Swift Actually Increasing N.F.L. Ratings?

Is Taylor Swift Actually Increasing N.F.L. Ratings?

Ever since Taylor Swift started dating the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, she has elevated him into a new tier of celebrity.

But is she making football more popular?

Headlines all season have suggested she’s boosting N.F.L. ratings. The league said that regular-season viewership was up 7 percent from last season, according to Nielsen data. Two of the four highest-rated “Sunday Night Football” games this season were attended by Swift.

Just because we could, we did a little digging (OK, maybe too much digging) into just how real the “Swift effect” is. We found that the answer, like dating as a celebrity, is complicated.

The first thing to know: When a game airs may have the biggest influence on ratings.

Swift’s first time in the Kelce suite was on a Sunday afternoon, so we started by looking at Sunday games in the traditional early and late time slots. The data, Nielsen viewer estimates, comes by way of Sports Media Watch. Swift has been to a dozen Chiefs games so far, and five were regular-season games on Sunday afternoon Eastern time.

To be clear, these are Nielsen viewership estimates for the networks at those times, not viewers for specific games.

When Swift attended a Chiefs game, the networks averaged 25 million viewers in their respective late Sunday time slots and 16 million in their early Sunday time slots. By our crude counting, that viewership was 9 percent and 15 percent higher than the same time slots when she didn’t appear.

Verdict so far: Good for the Swift effect. When she was on the airwaves on Sunday, more people tuned in. But we can’t be sure they were actually watching her …

On Sundays, there are typically multiple games playing at once during the day — often different matchups airing in different parts of the U.S. — so we can’t know whether people were watching the Chiefs and Swift, or some other team.

So we turned our investigation to three time slots when the networks traditionally air one game at a time across the country: “Monday Night Football,” “Thursday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Football.”

Swift didn’t go to the Chiefs’ sole Monday night game. (Forgive her absence: she has a job. And more on that game later.) But she went to two Sunday night games, and the team’s Thursday night game.

The games for Swift’s three visits outperformed the averages, and the Sunday night Nielsen numbers were particularly impressive.

Verdict so far: Promising. But how do we know more people are tuning in for Taylor, and not because the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl champions with a popular quarterback (Patrick Mahomes)?

Picture an alternate timeline (to some, a less endearing one) where Kelce never caught Swift’s attention by talking about her on his podcast. Would all those viewers have tuned in to see the Chiefs anyway?

Here’s how Swift’s games stack up to Chiefs games for the last few seasons.

Her games look good in the ratings, but so do all of the Chiefs’ games this season. And we know ratings are up overall this season. So the natural next question was: How much more popular are Chiefs games than the average N.F.L. game, and does Swift give an additional boost to that popularity, or not?

The table below shows those results. If there is a Swift effect, it’s made its biggest impact on Sunday nights: Over the last few seasons, Chiefs games on Sunday night had 5 percent more viewers than other games. This season, with Swift in attendance, the team’s viewership was 28 percent above other teams’ Sunday night games.

But the data also shows strong evidence against the Swift effect: Sunday afternoons with Swift this season look no different from the Chiefs’ non-Swift time slots. (The counterpoint to this counterpoint is how small this data set is: There were just two Sunday early games this season, one with Swift and one without, and the Chiefs typically have one “Thursday Night Football” game each year.)

Clearly, though, the Chiefs and Swift have been ultra-popular this season.

Which raises another question: Is this viewership bump noticeably different from the spikes seen with other popular teams, like the Dallas Cowboys or San Francisco 49ers?

We looked at Sunday, Monday and Thursday night football games to see.

Verdict so far: Very mixed. Though strong, the Chiefs-plus-Swift performance wasn’t off the charts. Was there anything else we were missing?

For good measure, we decided to look at individual games that didn’t fit into the other buckets.

For example: The Chiefs’ game at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day this season, which Swift attended, had 14 percent more viewers than last season’s game at the same time.

But the Chiefs-Lions game to start the season had viewership 24 percent higher than the kickoff game last season, according to Nielsen, even though it took place before the Taylor-Travis relationship was reported.

And the Chiefs-Eagles Monday night game — a Super Bowl rematch that featured Kelce’s brother, Jason, playing for the Eagles — was the highest-rated Monday night game this season. Swift and Kelce were a couple in the public eye by then, but she didn’t attend the game.

Verdict so far: This one’s probably a thumbs down for the Swift effect. But some might say that just by dating Kelce, Swift drew viewers to the Chiefs even when she wasn’t there, in a kind of halo Swift effect. Meanwhile, the chatter about the couple only increased heading into the postseason. Speaking of which …

Swift has been to three playoff games. To get a sense of whether those games got an audience boost, we compared every playoff game this season with the same time slot last season. (And excluded games without a comparable time slot last year.)

Swift games outperformed their time slots from last season. But so did other matchups.

Two notes: The Chiefs had a couple of disadvantages this year. Their wild-card game was streamed only on Peacock, which probably dampened viewership; it’s likely that the ratings bump would have been even higher otherwise. And their divisional round is compared here with a Cowboys game in the 2022 season — and Cowboys games tend to be popular.

Verdict so far: Very mixed here, too. Could Swift-Kelce be bringing more eyeballs to all playoff games? It doesn’t seem super likely.

Much like poring over lyrics looking for hidden meanings, studying the full data leaves room for interpretation. Certainly some Swift fans have tuned in, but it’s not obvious they’ve made a dent in the already huge popularity of the N.F.L.

Swift is also drawing attention to the sport in ways this data doesn’t capture. We didn’t analyze ticket sales, which were up for some Chiefs games. There have also been some reports of spikes in female viewership. And in living rooms across the country, Super Bowl parties may have a different flavor than usual.

So, is the Swift effect real? For that answer, we’re sorry to say, you’re on your own, kid.

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