Taylor Swift's 'open invitation' from the NFL: A Hail Mary pass to Gen Z and female fans

It's an American love story that starts out like this: Two-time Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce invites global megastar and singer Taylor Swift to his football game to impress her.

She accepts his invitation, and chaos ensues from Swift's fan base. Cameras flash on Swift, who sits next to Kelce's mother in his suite at Arrowhead Stadium. All over the nation, Swifties take to the internet to share that they are tuning into the game – a Sunday afternoon activity out of the ordinary for some.

Well, it's not just a tale. It's happening, so to speak, in real time across the nation.

"Taylor Swift is really about to make me watch a Chiefs game, isn't she. iykyk" wrote Bethany Pendleton, a Swiftie who lives in Maine, in a TikTok video Sunday. ("iykyk" translates to "If you know, you know.")

Taylor Swift's appearance and Kelce's invitation may have aided in solving a long-running challenge for the National Football League: attracting Americans from Generation Z, including young American women and girls, to the franchise.

Swift's mammoth fan base, primarily made up of millennial women according to Forbes, immediately turned to their screens to watch the Chiefs-Bears game on Sept. 24. Their viewership made the game the most-watched NFL broadcast of the week with 24.3 million viewers. It was the highest-rated game of the week for women between the ages of 12 to 49, according to FOX Sports.

And the game resonated especially with young women. It ranked first in women aged 12-17, 18-34 and 18-49. It was a 63% spike in women viewers aged 18-49 from the Chiefs' previous game, according to data from Roku TV.

The renewed attention to the NFL's growing fan base of American women and Gen Z is reinvigorating discussion around the league's complicated relationship with those groups. In recent years, the franchise has faced numerous scandals involving mistreatment of women within the league and from its players. And Gen Z audiences aren't consuming entertainment in the same ways as older generations of football fans, making them harder for the league to reach.

On Sunday, the franchise took advantage of the frenzy, changing its social media channel descriptions to "NFL (Taylor's Version)."

Ian Trombetta, a senior vice president of social and influencer marketing for the NFL, said officials weren't aware Swift was attending the game until the day of, but they "knew about Kelce's affinity for Taylor... and were watching closely."

Sep 24, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Taylor Swift reacts while watching the Kansas City Chiefs vs Chicago Bears game during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 24, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Taylor Swift reacts while watching the Kansas City Chiefs vs Chicago Bears game during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

NFL wants in on Gen Z spaces

The league has tried to gain traction with Gen Z in part by using different players' interests outside of football to their advantage, but they face a few hurdles.

"Gen Z is especially very elusive since they’re using media in ways that are not as traditional and not consuming in traditional broadcast form," said Trombetta.

"Sports fandom is lowest for Generation Z and highest for millennials," according to a 2023 study called "Fandom Across the Generations: Millennial Passion, Disengaged Boomers, andEvolving Generation" by Michael Lewis, a professor of marketing from Emory Goizuetta Business School.

"Several results suggest that Gen Z is more interested in their teams and celebrities engaging in activism," a report about the study reads. "This represents a significant challenge for sports organizations as political activity may alienate other generational segments, and there is little evidence that social justice campaigns are sufficient to drive fandom."

To address those challenges, Trombeta said the NFL is looking for ways for collaborate with celebrities and influencers who Gen Z audiences already trust to bring them in.

"We’ve been really leaning in and reaching out to more casual audiences, or people who are not watching football every single moment or watching every week, he said. "We're finding adjacencies in music, gaming, and fashion. "

On the day of Swift's appearance, the NFL released a commercial featuring reality star and business mogul Kim Kardashian calling Usher on the phone about how he'll take the stage at the Super Bowl in 2024. Trombetta named Kardashian's inclusion as one way the NFL was marketing toward women in an interview with USA TODAY.

Other celebrities with a strong Gen Z fan base like Alix Earle, a media personality who has more than 5 million followers on TikTok, are also drawing those audiences for the league after dating football athletes and wearing their NFL-branded gear.

The NFL's complicated relationship with American women

The NFL has made inroads with hundreds of thousands of women across the nation who are already fans of football and the franchise. Many consider themselves football fans, buy merchandise from the NFL, and know Kelce's name and career. And female coaches and football operations staff in the organization have increased "by 141% over the past 4 years," wrote Sammi Liang, a spokesperson for the league, in an email.

Women and young girls made up nearly half of the league's fans in 2021, according to data from SRS Sports Poll.

But the NFL's relationship with women is complicated. The organization has faced multiple complaints of discrimination against and violence against women over the years.

Earlier this year, two attorney generals from California and New York launched an investigation into sex discrimination and hostile work allegations within the NFL, according to NPR. Six attorney generals sent a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, criticizing the league's leader for reports that showed women were mistreated as employees of the NFL and for not doing enough to improve the workplace culture for women, ESPN reported.

The franchise long has been criticized for keeping players on the field who are criminally charged or accused of domestic violence or sexual assault. Many athletes who fall in that category face short-term consequences from the NFL, according to a peer-reviewed study called "More Talent, More Leeway: Do Violence Against Women Arrests Really Hurt NFL Player Careers?" published in an academic journal in May 2022.

Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil lawsuits against Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, in Houston. The NFL is appealing a disciplinary officer's decision to suspend Watson for six games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

And the organization has come under scrutiny for mishandling issues of racial justice.

"Women continue to play a critical role in driving the culture of the NFL forward both internally and externally," said Trombetta.

"We have a league-wide commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and advancing social justice, as well as nearly ten years of deep support for national and local organizations fighting to end domestic and sexual violence across the country," he said. "Everyone across the NFL is educated annually and has a role in our progress in these areas."

Marcella Jaymes, a 20-year fan of the league, said the NFL's controversies around mistreatment of women are on her mind. But her passion for the league is strong, and she hopes the NFL will do better to cater to longtime fans and newcomers.

She runs a TikTok account with about 31,600 followers geared toward bringing more women into the fan base. Engagement has significantly increased since Swift's appearance, she said. With the recent uptick in publicity among the audiences she caters to, the NFL has "an opportunity for them to create a brand that respects women and a value system within the brand that is respectful of women" she said in an interview.

Amid the frenzy, she said she wants people to know that many women are already knowledgeable about the game and players.

"The assumption is women don’t know anything about football but there’s been an active and engaged audience for years," she said.

Number of women: Working in the NFL steadily rising

Will Taylor Swift attend more NFL games?

Swifties' attraction to NFL screens may hold through the weekend if she attends the Chiefs-Jets games over the weekend, as Front Office Sports reports.

Trombetta said he "could not confirm not deny" she would be there, but he extended an invitation her way on behalf of the NFL.

"She’s invited to any game that she wants to come to," he said. "It's an open invitation."

Contributing: Victoria Hernandez, USA TODAY; Associated Press

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taylor Swift has 'open invitation' from NFL to help attract Gen Z fans