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Matt Stevens, a Culture reporter for The New York Times, is unabashedly a “Swiftie.” For years, a portrait of her hung in his home. In 2012, when he worked for The Los Angeles Times, Stevens was even selected as a finalist in a nationwide “biggest fan” contest that drew thousands of applications.
Last month Swift made a surprise appearance at an N.F.L. game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Chicago Bears, cheering from a luxury suite alongside Donna Kelce, the mother of Travis Kelce, Kansas’ All-Pro tight end. When the call came to cover the budding situationship between Swift, one of pop music’s biggest stars, and Kelce, who has won two Super Bowls, Stevens jumped at the chance.
“It was a collision between two of the biggest forces in American media: Taylor Swift and football,” he said of the following Sunday night game on Oct. 1 between the Chiefs and the Jets, which Swift also attended. “You couldn’t have written it any better.”
While Stevens delved into the breathless coverage of Swift’s reactions as she watched the game, Emmanuel Morgan, a fellow reporter, tuned into the game at a bar with a Taylor Swift fan new to football.
“The challenge for us was to write stories that not only capture the moment but add to it,” said Morgan, who reported on the N.F.L. for the Sports desk up until last month, when he joined Culture to cover the intersection of the two beats.
The Times does not normally report on the romances of celebrities, but here was a cultural moment of unusual significance: Swift’s songwriting famously pulls directly from her relationships. And the well-timed publicity boost for both individuals — Swift has a new concert film coming out this week, and Kelce is in the second half of a Hall of Fame-caliber career — raised questions about the legitimacy of the relationship.
In a video call, Stevens and Morgan discussed why millions of people are so invested in the saga. They also — agonizingly, on Stevens’s part — chose their favorite Swift song. Read the edited conversation below.
Emmanuel, how much did you know about Taylor Swift before this story? And Matt, how much did you know about football?
MORGAN I was not one of her biggest fans, but I had a respect for her, and I have lots of friends who are fans.
STEVENS When I was an intern at The Los Angeles Times, I was a sports reporter. So I’ve really enjoyed writing about this story line because it meshes my two favorite interests: Taylor Swift and football.
Matt, you’re a self-described superfan of Swift. Your even met her backstage at a concert in 2015. What jumped out to you about her?
STEVENS I had written a first-person essay about my fandom for The Los Angeles Times, which then included a photo of me with a cardboard cutout of Taylor. I will always remember Taylor striding down the back hallway of Staples Center, calling out to me, “Cardboard cutout!” When you hang out with her, it seems like she knows you, which is one of the things her fans love. It is also true that Taylor Swift is extremely, extremely tall.
Emmanuel, you covered the N.F.L. until recently. What stands out about Kelce from your interactions with him?
MORGAN He’s one of the more open N.F.L. players. He’s not going to give you cliché quotes when he talks at the podium or at his locker after games.
Why is The Times covering this story?
STEVENS It’s hard to ignore a moment that is as monocultural as this Swift-Kelce collision. Everybody’s talking about it, so for us to not acknowledge it seems negligent.
MORGAN The key was to give audiences the stories they wanted but in a way that went beyond just, “Are they or are they not dating?”
Do you get the impression that it is a real relationship?
STEVENS It certainly has both publicity and public relations in mind. But both Taylor and Travis are famous and probably don’t need it. Swift is on a break from the international leg of her tour and has a movie coming out this month, which was promoted twice in commercials during the Chiefs-Jets game. I don’t want to speculate about whether or not they are dating — that’s a personal matter. But I do think they are aware that the cross-promotion is helpful.
Can the seemingly insatiable interest in this story sustain itself?
STEVENS The most pressing moment was when Taylor Swift appeared in the sky box against the Bears — everyone was surprised. Then the story carried on during the Sunday Night Football game, and now the air is out of the sails a bit. We know that Taylor is going to resume her Eras tour soon, so I’m not sure where the story will go.
Are you planning to cover developments in their relationship?
STEVENS There was a New York Post report about the N.F.L. nudging TV stations to give Taylor additional attention. And so there are certainly accountability pieces we may still want to untangle around who’s pulling the strings, how much influence Taylor has, and why the N.F.L. is so interested in courting her.
MORGAN We want to continue some of that longer-term reporting, but we didn’t cover the Chiefs game over the weekend.
Have we reached the point of saturation?
STEVENS During the Sunday Night Football game against the Jets there was, at one point, a social media trend in pop music around #EnoughTaylorSwift. One of the things that I am wondering is if there is an oversaturation point and if there is going to start to be blowback.
Final question: What is the best Taylor Swift song?
MORGAN “Wildest Dreams.” I’m basic, though.
STEVENS When I go to a wedding and the D.J. is amenable, I always request “22.”