This being the paper of record, it’s only right that we provide you with a little splash of archaeological certitude on this Super Bowl weekend. In the decades to come, historians will sift back through these times and try to find the exact moment at which the streams of sport and celebrity crossed for keeps. The point from which there would be no going back.
This column is pleased to save them a lot of bother and inform them it was the night of September 24th, 2023, about 10.30pm GMT. For that was the hour at which this columnist’s wife poked her head around the door of the living room and asked, in all innocence, “Does the name Travis Kelce mean anything to you?”
Now, she is no sporting agnostic. Far from it, indeed. But having shackled her existence to a sports journalist, it’s just a fact that she gets exposed to a frankly unreasonable amount of the stuff. In for-better-for-worse terms, it’s no good pretending that a DVR stuffed with old McKenna Cup matches constitutes the for-better end of the deal.
There’s only so much a normal person can take. The NFL exists, quite correctly, just that bit beyond the limit of her interest. So when she inquired after the Kansas City Chiefs tight-end back in September, that’s when you knew the world had changed. And, quite honestly, when you started to fear for poor Travis K.
That was the night Taylor Swift went to her first Chiefs game, causing a pan-planetary commotion online. And as the camera endlessly cut to her alongside his mother up in their suite, you could only wonder if Kelce knew what he was getting himself into.
Could he really have any conception of what it meant to enter that level of celebrity, to walk face-first into that tsunami of fame? When the Chiefs played the New York Jets a week later, an extra two million women reportedly tuned in across America. For the stinking, useless, dull-as-dung Jets! Now that’s pulling power.
Kelce was already well-known, primarily as a generational player in his position. But beyond that too as someone who had a bit of a profile outside the sport. He’d starred in an off-season reality show. He’d forged a mildly successful podcast with his brother Jason, also an NFL player. In a sport where everybody wears a helmet, he was one of the more recognisable faces.
But famous? No. Taylor Swift is famous. Travis Kelce is not famous. Or, at least, he wasn’t.
If you spend any length of time in the US at all, you come away certain of one thing. There is no amount of money worth being famous in America. Gary Smith knew this when he penned one of the most memorable pieces of sportswriting ever, a Tiger Woods profile in Sports Illustrated in 1996.
It was a long, deep-dive rumination on what it was going to be like for Woods, then still only 20 years old, “to wander, lost, through the sad and silly wilderness of modern fame”. “Just below the applause,” Smith wrote, “or within it, can you hear the grinding? That’s the relentless chewing mechanism of fame, girding to grind the purity and the promise to dust.”
For so long afterwards, Woods made a mockery of that Sports Illustrated piece. He grew into the most famous and dominant sportsperson on the planet. Over the subsequent decade and a half, his progress was so serene that it became incredibly easy to dismiss the piece as overblown and divorced from reality. Right up until it wasn’t.
In April 2010, I was in Augusta for Woods’s comeback appearance at the Masters. He hadn’t played in public since the previous November, when he’d blown his whole life up as revelations about extra-marital affairs had turned him into the number one story in America. The New York Post put him on the front page 20 days in a row, beating the previous record of 19 consecutive days, which they had done for 9/11.
The Masters was his re-entry and to be there as it played out that week was nothing short of surreal. Everything was Tiger-tinged. There was a pawnbroker across from the front gate that sold jewellery at knockdown prices and all week a guy stood outside it wearing a sandwich board that said: “Pulled a Tiger? Let us smooth it over for you!”
On one of the days, a plane flew over the course screaming: “Sex addict? Yeah, right. Me too!” On another, a security guard – on alert that one of Tiger’s former paramours would confront him on the the fairway – went over to a woman in the crowd and said, “Excuse me Ma’am, are you the stripper?”
For a million different reasons, Woods has never been the same in the years since. The sad and silly wilderness of fame got him in the end. He was changed by it all, arguably for the better it must be said. But nonetheless, the machine won.
And now the machine has Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift in its gears. Their nascent romance has been one of the storylines of the NFL season, unignorable and generally quite an enjoyable thing to behold. For one thing, it has annoyed all the right people — Fox News and all the MAGA weirdos have been frothing about it for months. For another, it has coincided with a notable upturn in Kelce’s form on the gridiron. One in the eye for the baleful pundit class who immediately leapt on Swift’s presence and pronounced her a distraction.
But mostly, it has been cool to watch Kelce handle the whole thing with such easy grace and humour. At the Super Bowl media day during the week, he never once grouched that so many of the questions he got were about his personal life. “I think it’s fair,” he said. “I mean everybody’s having fun with it. It’s not like you guys [the media] are up here teeing off on me left and right. Everybody’s having a good time with it, so how could I be upset about it?”
When he was asked the inevitable pundit-drone question about the whole thing being a distraction, he turned it right around. “It’s only given me energy,” he replied. “I’m very fortunate to be in the position I am in life and have amazing things going for me. I’d be silly to find any negativity in what’s going on.”
Good for him. And good for them. The machine is grinding away, we all know that. But for now, she’s the biggest popstar in the world and he’s about to try and become only the ninth tight end in history to win three Super Bowls.
With a bit of luck, the machine hopefully has a fight on its hands this time.