Don’t Blame Us, The Taylor Swift Effect Isn’t (Yet) Real

Upwave Research Unveils Lack of Taylor Swift Impact on NFL Audience Profiles

There aren’t many audiences more passionate than Taylor Swift and professional football fans. And lo, like manna from heaven, the world’s biggest pop star–in the middle of the biggest tour in history–decided to start dating the second most popular player on the defending Super Bowl champion. Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce becoming romantically involved captivated many audiences, none more entranced than the media.

When Taylor showed up at her first game in September, the world watched. Immediately several cottage industries popped up to anticipate what she would be wearing, how many times the camera would feature her during games, and which other celebrities would be attending with her. Expectations were high for Swift to bring a huge new audience to the NFL.

Nielsen reported that the first game she attended, at the Chiefs’ stadium against the Chicago Bears, drove a 63% jump in viewership among women aged 18 to 49. Based on that one stat from one game (cited ad nauseam), industry watchers assumed it would be a marriage made in heaven for the entire season.

It’s unsurprising why the broadcast partners produced countless cutaways to Swift. They anticipated a ton of new viewers that were less interested in the game on the field and more interested in seeing their icon–creating “The Taylor Swift Effect.”

Yet, Upwave research, with data from iSpot, shows that the “effect” was negligible at best, and definitely faded away later in the season. We looked at the linear TV audience profile of NFL games where Taylor Swift was in attendance and when she was not. We found very few meaningful differences between the two.

We discuss a couple of reasons why, and what broadcasters and advertisers should take away from the dalliance between pop stars and (sorry baseball) the new national pastime.

What our data showed

We worked with iSpot to identify respondents who watched various NFL games throughout the course of the season. In particular we focused on matched pairs of games aired at similar times on the same day (Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, Sunday Afternoon), and at most one week apart. For each pair, one game was attended by Taylor Swift and the other was not attended by Taylor Swift. The results poked a hole in the expectations of a demographic shift.

Using iSpot’s ACR data to recognize when an NFL game was being watched in a household, we were then able to identify respondents who watched each NFL game on linear TV. We then interviewed thousands of individuals who watched some subset of these games, and asked them questions related to their demographics, purchasing behaviors, sports watching habits, and what artists that they listen to regularly.

For example, the percentage of 18-49 female viewers only increased by about 2% at games that Taylor Swift attended versus those where she was not in attendance (versus what was reported after one game.) But what about self-reported Taylor Swift fans? They must have tuned-in in droves. Well, we found no meaningful difference between games she attended and other games. The audience makeup for both categories of games was approximately 20% Swift fans and 80% non-fans.

The New York Times conducted a similar investigation and found the data to be mixed. For every positive data point supporting the Swift bump, they found a conflicting stat. For instance, the 2023 Super Bowl rematch between the Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles, which Swift did not attend, was the year’s highest-rated Monday night game.

But focusing on just raw viewership instead of looking at demographic or psychographic data only tells one small piece of the story. Viewers tune in for many different reasons – the quality of teams, potential additional storylines (e.g. if a former player for one team is facing that team for the first time) or overall playoff implications. Looking at viewership numbers alone won’t tell you  about who is watching or why.

Our research likewise demonstrated many audience attributes did not change, demonstrating the NFL viewership remained relatively static. Games featuring Taylor Swift and those that did not had the same audience makeup based on household income, whether or not someone is a beer drinker, prefers to dine out, tunes in for other sports, and which other forms of entertainment they watched.

The NFL juggernaut needs little help. The NFL remains the most popular live program in the United States. Almost half of the top 100 most-watched programs in 2023 (45) went to NFL games. If anything in linear TV didn’t need a boost, it was the NFL.

Publications breathlessly predicted the legions of Taylor fans would boost NFL viewership even higher, and change the makeup of the audience. There was a lot of media hype around Taylor Swift attending these games, but not that much change in audience composition.

For example, 123.4 million people watched this year’s Super Bowl, which once again broke records as the most-watched program in history. The Super Bowl owns the top 10 spots–and 19 of the top 20–in broadcast history, with the 11th being the last episode of M.A.S.H. In short, the NFL already has a huge audience, so it’s not necessarily easy to add more viewers.

Likewise, the Kansas City Chiefs are an extremely popular team, led by the unanimous best quarterback in the league. They were already a must-watch for millions of viewers.

Audience intersections already existed. It is safe to assume that existing broadcast numbers include a healthy number of Taylor Swift fans. First of all, the NFL boasts an impressive female audience and has for some time. An overwhelming majority of its fans, 64% are aged 25 – 39. So to add numbers to already impressive viewership counts, it would need to add many new Taylor Swift viewers. That did not materialize.

Social media continues to challenge live linear TV. The biggest challenge to the Taylor Swift bump was, you didn’t have to watch live TV to experience it. Swifties who had no interest in watching football knew they would get plenty of that content through social media. Also, if you wanted to follow along with the jokes and memes, you would need to focus on social media whether or not you were watching live. The NFL and its broadcast partners got in on the fun, sharing videos of Taylor at games on X. As with other live programs, the second screen can be a first screen if people only want the highlights.

So what are the key takeaways?

Measurement is king. Assumptions and anecdotes fall quickly to cold, hard data. While it certainly felt plausible that Taylor Swift would boost the NFL’s already sizable audience–or in some way change its composition–there were several likely complicating factors as discussed above.

Live TV continues to encounter headwinds. Live TV–whether linear or CTV–is dealing with headwinds brought on by social media. It’s why the NFL has deals with social networks and broadcast companies post clips there, too. There are no singular watercooler moments anymore – for one, much of work is now hybrid or virtual, and people are often communicating asynchronously. People are choosing to consume content in many different ways at different times, and creating destination TV remains difficult. Those who care about the outcome will certainly tune in live, but those just in for the pop culture component can just as easily consume it online after it happens.

There’s no content monolith. It’s harder to create viral moments (or capitalize on them with paid media), even when considering the world’s most popular music artist. Taylor Swift’s appearance at NFL games competed for fans’ attention with TikTok, YouTube videos of her show, other social media, and countless other entertainment options.

Given how complex and fragmented the media landscape is, it always feels exciting when highly popular culture influences others. But the reality is that there’s no exact Venn diagram that ensures both audiences will overlap – or that they weren’t already overlapping.

Fortunately for the NFL and its broadcast partners, the sport has tons of viewers. Any Swift bonus is just that, and not something to bank a strategy on (yet).