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It’s not just Swifties: There are more sports fans, and brands see a way to score

A cursor pulls a jersey off of Travis Kelce's back, leaving a dotted-line space in its place.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

On Sept. 24, Taylor Swift — you might have heard of her — attended an NFL game to watch her beau, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, help his team defeat the Chicago Bears 41–10.

That same day, sales for Kelce jerseys spiked 400 percent.

The Kelce phenomenon reflects how major sports organizations are leaning into the stardom of their most popular players, and the stories surrounding them, to expand their audience; the NFL even briefly changed its header photo on X, formerly Twitter, to one of Swift.

“This is our moment to capture [Swift fans] and bring them into the sport so that they engage ongoing,” Marissa Solis, the NFL’s SVP of global and consumer marketing, tells The Current Podcast. “Whether the Taylor Swift effect lasts or doesn’t last, we want to keep that fan base and we’ll do so by being culturally relevant; bringing in their life, their music, their fashion, the way they really want to engage [with] the game.”

This also highlights the opportunity for brands to capitalize on new sports fans who might be going all-in on their newfound passion. Or they can capture casual participants more interested in the personalities and culture surrounding the sport than the sport itself. Whatever the case, the last few years have seen rising engagement with sports, both in the U.S. and around the world, that goes well beyond Swift and the NFL. The brands that tap in to that consumer interest could benefit.

Some have already taken advantage of the Swift-Kelce relationship. After Swift attended that Sept. 24 game, a photo appeared on the X social media platform with the caption “Taylor Swift was eating a piece of chicken with ketchup and seemingly ranch!”

Brands jumped on the opportunity. Heinz announced limited-edition bottles of ketchup and ranch mix called “Ketchup and Seemingly Ranch.” Similarly, Primal Kitchen released a “Seemingly Ranch” limited-edition bottle.

“There are brands that naturally fit into storylines where it’s super relevant to them, whether it’s technology integration, lifestyle, travel — all these things that are speaking to an athlete’s life,” says Bob Lynch, CEO of SponsorUnited, a sports-and-entertainment-focused intelligence firm. “Brands want to reach people that are interested in those things.”

More people are engaging with sports

According to data provided to The Current by consumer research firm GWI, engagement with the NBA outside the U.S. has grown 10 percent from 2022 to this year; the number of sports fans in the U.K. who engage with the NFL is up 21 percent since last year; and U.S. engagement with the English Premier League has grown 53 percent since 2020.

So what’s going on? Matt Smith, trends manager at GWI, attributes it partly to easier access. Thanks to social media and video streaming services, “the barrier to entry to follow sport has been lowered for many,” he says. Speaking of streamers, brands have more opportunities than ever to engage with sports and get in front of audiences; Netflix, for instance, recently debuted its first livestreamed sports event, a golf tournament that featured brand sponsorships.

Furthermore, Smith says that says that women’s leagues are “finding their own, new audience, perhaps one which hasn’t engaged with sport traditionally.” According to Smith, the number of soccer fans that do not follow the Men’s World Cup but do follow the Women’s World Cup has increased 20 percent since 2021.

Niche and emerging sports are seeing engagement too. Smith says that niche sports, particularly combat sports, have seen more than a 20 percent increase in engagement over the last three years, for instance. And brands have followed the fan enthusiasm: according to SponsorUnited, mixed martial arts has seen a nearly 100 percent increase in sponsorship deals over the last year.

Lynch, the SponsorUnited CEO, noted that some athletes, like Kelce or soccer phenom Lionel Messi, are “bigger than the leagues or the teams they play for,” which can contribute to more casual sports fans following along.

One example: Kelce’s podcast, New Heights — which he co-hosts with his brother, who plays for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles — sees 35 times more social engagement per branded post than any other sports podcast, according to SponsorUnited. Brands that hang in their orbit could reap the halo effect. Some brands that already have deals with Travis Kelce saw higher engagement after Swift attended his game in September, according to Business Insider.

“Brands that are doing deals with athletes are seeing a gateway to getting into the leagues,” Lynch says.

The retail opportunities are substantial

Travis Kelce jerseys are just the start. The global licensed sports merchandise market could see a boom in the next five years; India-based Mordor Intelligence projects it to increase from about $33 billion this year to over $43 billion by 2028, partly due to what it says is the “rising number of sports fans.”

Over in the other football, Adidas has seen extraordinary demand for Messi’s jersey after the star joined Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami team — the culmination of a steady rise in popularity of soccer in the U.S. According to GWI, the number of American MLS fans who say they’ve purchased a Messi jersey in the last six months has increased by 14 percent year over year.

Recognizing the opportunity there, Adidas recently announced a line of retro-style Messi jerseys that offer consumers more options than the iconic pink jersey that’s been flying off shelves.

“These new sports fans may be less interested in the technical aspects of sports apparel, for example, but they want to rep their favorite teams because it’s fashionable to do so,” Smith says. “So recently, we’ve seen more casual, retro-inspired lines of merchandise which are more fashion focused, first and foremost.”

Trends like this showcase how brands can strategically partner with athletes or organizations in the retail space. For instance, fans of the French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain say they were 50 percent more likely than the average soccer fan to buy a team jersey in the last six months, according to GWI — thanks largely to a collaboration with Nike’s Jordan brand.

And the opportunities aren’t limited to jerseys.

“In the U.S., there’s been a year-on-year increase in the number of soccer and basketball fans who say they’ve bought souvenirs — cups and mugs, keyrings, stationery, toys — and casualwear, so there’s plenty to be gained by broadening the scope of merchandising options,” Smith says.