The New York Jets were my first introduction to professional football, too, so believe me when I say that I understand what many Taylor Swift fans experienced on Sunday night.
My dad bought season tickets in 1997, Bill Parcells’ first season, when tickets were dirt cheap. The Jets had just won one game the previous season under head coach Rich Kotite, who never got another job in the NFL. My dad’s second cousin was one of those diehard Jets fans who joked (and sometimes wasn’t joking) about wearing paper bags over their heads in the stands, and he knew plenty of people who were selling tickets.
By the time I got to middle school, I was playing three sports: tennis in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring. But I wasn’t yet a Jets fan. My relationship to sports changed fundamentally when I got into football.
I started to go to games with my dad during the 2001 season, and together we experienced the end of the Vinny Testaverde era. He bought me a Chad Pennington jersey after he took over, and I wore it to school — mostly to annoy my friends who were Eagles fans, but also because I loved being part of the fandom. I could speak a language that most 13-year-old girls couldn’t.
There is nothing inherently exclusionary about sports, though some fans acted like there was when millions of Swifties tuned into something they’d maybe never seen before: a Jets-Chiefs game. There’s no good reason so many people treat football fandom as something you need to prove in order to be able to watch the games. So, let’s stop doing that. We should welcome those who are new to football and maybe felt too intimidated to enter the arena before.
When Taylor Swift showed up to the Chiefs’ game, Fox’s TV crew had itself a challenge
I thought about my entry point into football fandom a lot this weekend, as I heard NBC’s Mike Tirico open the “Sunday Night Football” broadcast by welcoming in the Swifties. I thought about it again as I saw Ari Meirov, an NFL commentator with a large social media presence, mock the NFL for changing its Twitter/X bio to Taylor Swift lyrics and Sports Illustrated media critic Jimmy Traina state unequivocally that “legitimate NFL fans” hated a broadcast that included cutaways to Swift and her famous friends enjoying the Jets-Chiefs game. Traina wrote that he couldn’t believe NBC decided to cater to more casual sports fans who would want to see “Taylor Swift jump around and make faces in the suite.”
Plenty of people made similar jokes, assuming that Swift knows nothing about football. Ah, yes, the woman who is famously an Eagles fan couldn’t possibly know what was happening in the game. She’s just jumping around because someone told her something good happened, right? Surely these people know the level of Swift’s fandom — because of course it’s some sort of test. She couldn’t possibly be enjoying an Isiah Pacheco touchdown because it was a terrific run and helped the Chiefs build a lead. Because she was actually watching the game the whole time, interested and engaged.
Every female sports fan has had her fandom questioned. It’s the quiz. Every woman reading this knows what I’m talking about. You’re at a sports bar trying to watch a game, and some guy comes up to you and demands that you prove your sports knowledge on the spot. Name the backup center for the Jets. Name the co-defensive coordinator of the Pats. Name seven players from the 1948 New York Yankees. It never ends well, because the only way the quiz ends is when you, the woman, get so pissed off that you leave the sports bar to watch the game at home in peace.
The NFL spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year trying to reach potential new audiences. The league puts on annual games in Europe in an attempt to attract international fans. It broadcast a game on an animated “Toy Story” set just this weekend and has produced alternate Nickelodeon broadcasts in an attempt to get kids engaged. No one makes fun of those efforts, by the way. Swifties who may have never watched an NFL game but now are tuning in to Kansas City Chiefs games to catch a glimpse (or 10) of Swift and her maybe-boyfriend are just another potential new audience.
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Every single football fan had an entry point to this wonderful sport. Maybe your dad got you a football for your crib and signed you up for pee wee football as soon as he could. Perhaps, instead, your dad just asked one day if you might want to go tailgate in a parking lot and sit in the nosebleeds of section 310 in old Giants Stadium.
And maybe that parking lot is where you first learned to throw a football, which it turns out isn’t that hard because you’d already been playing softball for a while. And maybe those nosebleed seats turned into a community of mostly cranky Long Islanders who’d had tickets for decades and always assumed the worst when it came to the Jets. And maybe that experience led to you asking your dad if you could watch “Monday Night Football.” And the whole day of games on a Sunday.
Maybe you’d even drag your dad to a local sports bar just so you could watch all the games at once. Because you both loved Peyton Manning and you didn’t always get the Indianapolis Colts games, he would say yes.
Even if the Swifties didn’t tune in on Sunday night solely for the football, maybe this was the entry point that they needed to our favorite pastime. God forbid we make an American sport more accessible, interesting and entertaining to people who for whatever reason haven’t given the sport a chance.
Viewership among girls aged 12-17 increased 53 percent from the season-to-date average of the first three weeks of Sunday Night Football, according to Variety. The audience among women aged 18-24 was up 24 percent; among women 35 and older, it increased by 34 percent. What if some of them stick around? What if they realize that a close game between the Chiefs and Jets sparked something within them? What if we look at the potential upside instead of mocking a supremely talented pop star’s largely young and female fan base? The NFL has chosen the former, seeing the business and marketing opportunity it’s been gifted. And for those of us who love both football and Swift’s catalog? It’s been a fun couple of weeks.
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I hope that some of these girls fall in love with the sport I love, too. I don’t wish Jets fandom on them — I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies — but I want them to feel welcomed, like I did by my dad and my cousins and those Long Islanders we hung out with every week. They taught me the rules. They taught me the importance of a good run game. They taught me a language I’d speak the rest of my life.
“This idea that you get to judge who is or isn’t a good fan doesn’t go with the sport of football,” my dad told me when I called him Monday night. “You show up, it counts. You let them in and just hope that it sticks.”
That’s my hope, too.
(Photo: Elsa / Getty Images)