It starts with a high five. Then two backward fives. Hip check—woo!—lean back, snap. Twin sprays of blond are tossed over shoulders, red-stained lips part in cheers, and the not-so-secret handshake is complete. Touchdown! You are watching the NFL.
In most years, the aesthetic beats of a football season are consistent and predictable. The mood board has its Terrible Towels waving in Pittsburgh, bare-chested fans braving frigid temperatures in Green Bay or Buffalo, pregame flyovers, and spilled beer. Frustration is a coach who’s spiking a tablet; triumph is a roaring crowd or a touchdown spike; anticipation is a parade of players as they step off the team bus in their Thom Browne, their Gucci, or their North Face; and disappointment is a tearful ride on the medical cart or a face hidden under a Gatorade towel on the sideline.
Yet this season, as Taylor Swift has merged her spotlight with the NFL’s, the look and feel of the sport itself have been altered. The 2023 NFL mood board now includes paparazzi snaps of the most famous woman in the world as she walks down the steps at Nobu, arm in arm with the wife of the NFL’s best quarterback; viral custom puffer jackets; and postgame kisses. All are evidence of the league’s new fixation on Swift, yes, but also of an increased interest in her new group of peers, the partners of Chiefs or other NFL players during this unusual season.
Welcome to the WAGaissance (Football’s Version).
The wives and girlfriends of professional football players are often the subjects of voyeuristic interest, but rarely have they achieved main character status in an NFL season the way they have in this one. Swift’s trips to Kansas City to cheer on her boyfriend, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, and her new friendship with Brittany Mahomes, wife of Kelce’s teammate Patrick, have made major news. We’ve heard about the cinnamon rolls she’s baked for pregame breakfasts and the dinners with famous pals she’s invited Brittany and other WAGs to join. The images of her cheering from the box or celebrating with Kelce after wins will be some of the most enduring from this year.
But beyond Swift, the presence of influencers like Olivia Culpo (whose fiancé is 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey), Allison Kucharczyk (whose husband is defensive end Isaac Rochell), Alix Earle (whose boyfriend is Dolphins receiver Braxton Berrios), and the greatest Olympic gymnast of all time, Simone Biles (whose husband is Packers safety Jonathan Owens), has been more palpable this season. Their collective spotlight has expanded to include WAGs who were not already famous, like Kristin Juszczyk, a clothing designer whose husband is 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, and Lyndsay Bell, who’s married to Chiefs tight end Blake Bell. Together, they’ve injected an unmistakable dose of femininity into a hypermasculine world, subverted some expectations of what it means to be a sports fan, and—as is WAG tradition—become subjects of both celebration and scorn.
In a commercial sense, Swift and her fellow WAGs’ prominence this season has been a coup for football, more evidence of the power of female audiences, who remain underserved as fans of basically anything, including sports. The NFL is the ratings juggernaut in entertainment, but its biggest long-term concern is that the average fan is a 50-year-old man. The league knows this and desperately wants to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience, but it doesn’t know how. Overtures to female fans via pink jerseys and plunging V-neck logo tees have been condescending, not to mention downright ugly. But in 2023, a group of influential female tastemakers who demonstrated in real time how they want to present themselves as fans fell organically into the league’s lap, modeling game days as an aesthetic—not mob wife, but football girlfriend. Swift’s outfits are well documented and have led to plenty of sold-out merchandise, and after she, Mahomes, Biles, and Culpo all wore Kristin Juszczyk’s custom team gear, the NFL gave Juszczyk a licensing deal.
The Super Bowl ads this year also seem to reflect the presence of new audiences: L’Oreal’s NYX makeup brand and e.l.f. Cosmetics each bought in-game commercials for the first time ever, and Dove bought its first in 18 years. Purely anecdotally, it seems that this year Super Bowl parties will have better themes and decorations—perhaps thanks to hands skilled in the arts of friendship bracelets and custom tour outfits. These trends dovetail with the recent success of Formula 1 and a slew of sports documentaries that have been popular with female audiences who are interested in sports, but don’t necessarily want to consume them in the most traditional ways. In media, amid a mostly devastating year in the sports landscape, New York Magazine’s fashion and women’s interest site, The Cut, started a sports vertical.
Swift’s presence has had a demonstrable ratings impact—the girliest NFL season ever has also been the most watched by women since tracking began in 2000. Nielsen figures have estimated that an additional 2 million women watched a Chiefs game in October because she was in attendance, and another research firm claimed that she has generated the equivalent of $331 million in value for the Chiefs and the NFL.
“This is just about welcoming people to the game,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on Monday. “It’s giving people a different perspective of the game. People are talking about the game. Whatever the reason is, I’m good with it. Taylor is obviously a dynamo—everything she touches.”
For many, tuning in to an NFL broadcast knowing that Swift will be there with her friends makes football more engaging or accessible. But not everyone has been pleased to see the WAGs. Swift in particular has at times been painted as an interloper. There was enough backlash to her on-camera appearances during games to inspire a terrible Golden Globes bit, a New York Times article about her actual screen time (roughly 25 seconds in a three-plus-hour broadcast), and a question in her interview for Time’s Person of the Year feature, which she answered by saying that she didn’t mind “pissing off a few dads, Brads and Chads.” Late in the NFL’s regular season, there was a brief but ridiculous narrative that their relationship was the source of a stretch of poor play for Kelce. After the Chiefs won the AFC Championship game (Kelce’s best game of the season), Ravens fans screamed, “You’re ruining football” at Swift as she walked through the tunnel to the field in Baltimore.
A group of women took a sport by storm like this once before and were received with similar attention—and contempt. In 2006, led by their own international pop superstar, Victoria Beckham, the wives and girlfriends of England’s World Cup team members descended on the sleepy German spa town of Baden-Baden and became the focus of a sideshow to the games that was so much larger than life that it became hard to distinguish which was the main event.
It was the incessant tabloid coverage of these women that led to the popularization of the term “WAG,” as well as to the idea of WAGs as a cultural fixation. The England WAGs were incredibly fun to watch as they lived their lives, largely because of their absurd extravagances and daily micro-dramas: Coleen McLoughlin (now Rooney) brought her spray tan artist with her. Another wife missed her flight to Germany because she packed too many suitcases. They wore giant sunglasses, carried Birkins the size of their torsos, and drank copious amounts of champagne. They made it generally clear that they were there to support their men and have a great time and that the soccer was entirely incidental to both of those pursuits.
For British author Alison Kervin, the similarities between then and now are striking.
“They were such a big deal,” Kervin told me. “And it’s exactly the same. Victoria Beckham would bring the other Spice Girls to matches with her sometimes too, and they’d all be hugging and kissing and drinking and cheering on, just the way that Taylor Swift is with her friends.”
Kervin is a sports journalist in the U.K. who mostly covered rugby in 2006 but also followed the World Cup, when she became fascinated with the WAG obsession and the real lives of these women. She thought it could be fertile ground for a novel, and one particular anecdote she read about Steven Gerrard’s now-wife, Alex Gerrard, from just before the two were married sold her on the premise.
“[Alex] said, ‘Since I’ve been a little girl, I’ve always dreamt that the cake would be enormous. I wanted a cake bigger than the groom,’” Kervin said. “And I just thought, ‘That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard. You want a cake bigger than the groom?’ So I just thought, ‘There’s such a comedy setting here for a novel.’”
She went on to write three: The WAG’s Diary, A WAG Abroad, and Wags at the World Cup.
Kervin found the women’s antics and hierarchies to be excellent fodder but also wound up interested in the hysteria they inspired in the sports world, which saw them as invaders. When England was surprisingly eliminated in the quarterfinals of that World Cup, the WAGs took a healthy share of the blame and had their visiting rights revoked for the next World Cup in 2010, a narrative Kelce might recognize.
“They were not in charge of defense policy,” Kervin said, referring to the real on-field reason that England’s soccer team failed. “It all became so silly.”
Kervin found that much of the enduring fascination with—and derision of—these women stemmed from the idea that many of them were “normal” in a way that their elite athlete partners weren’t. Though famous footballers (English or American) are wealthy and recognizable, many of them play in smaller cities where celebrities aren’t shielded in the way they might be in New York, London, or Los Angeles. A young woman could go to a local gym or a local bar and find herself in an overnight Cinderella story. Of course, this goes hand in hand with the most classic WAG critique: Why does she get to be there and with him?
An odd variant of this dynamic centered around Victoria Beckham, a.k.a. Posh Spice. She was wildly successful in her own right before she started dating David Beckham—Kervin estimates that Posh would have been the more recognizable of the two, at least at first—but her preternatural nonchalance about football was oil in the water of the sports world, which values nothing more than dedication to the team. Victoria made no secret of the fact that the games were irrelevant to her—“I wasn’t into football then, I am not into football now,” she said, casually, in one scene from the recent Netflix series Beckham. When David was an active player, her indifference led some fans to paint her as unworthy and ungrateful.
“I don’t think anyone quite understands how she did what she did,” Kervin said. “And I don’t mean that cruelly; it sounds very cruel. But she was in one of the most successful bands ever here. She married one of the most successful men in the country.
“And she’d always say, ‘I just eat normally, I don’t exercise a lot,’ which isn’t actually what you want to hear. You want to hear her say, ‘I do five hours of exercise a day and I only eat peanuts,’ because then you realize that she’s worked that hard.”
Nonchalance is not exactly Swift’s métier, but there is some parallel with the friction she has received in the NFL world. If we ignore the attention seekers and bad-faith arguers who are whining about less than a single play clock’s worth of broadcast attention, there’s some more innocent confusion at play, a lack of understanding of exactly why Swift means as much as she does to so many people.
For a major sport, and certainly for an entertainment product of its size, the NFL is somewhat allergic to celebrity. Players wear helmets that cover their faces. Before this season, broadcast shots of luxury suites were more likely to feature team owners than anyone recognizable to an E! audience. There have been the Brady-Bündchens and Russ and Ciara to keep the pop culture inclined occupied, and players of yesteryear like Joe Namath (now there is someone who could pull off mob wife) who seemed to understand stardom. But there’s no NFL equivalent to Drake’s or Spike Lee’s courtside seats, and the New York and Los Angeles football franchises aren’t cornerstone teams the way that the Lakers, Knicks, or even Dodgers are.
There is also the fact that the wives and girlfriends of athletes are unique vectors for sexism. An interesting subplot of Swift-as-WAG has been her embrace—figurative and literal—of Brittany Mahomes, who is treated as a bit of a villain in the NFL universe even though her husband is a widely beloved and noncontroversial figure.
This is not entirely baseless—Brittany sometimes has trouble reading the room. In 2022, she was dragged online for popping a bottle of champagne out of a suite window and spraying the fans sitting in cold temperatures below. Afterward, she made “Team Brittany” shirts and sold them online, donating proceeds to an anti-bullying charity, a choice that probably did not have the public relations consequences she was hoping for. This season hasn’t been without incident either: In November, a TikTok user posted a viral video in which she claimed that Mahomes stiffed hotel staff on a tip during a visit to Los Angeles. After the Chiefs won the AFC championship game, the way that Brittany asked a stadium employee for directions became a tabloid and social media fixation.
None of that is unforgivable, though, and some of those criticisms are very obviously a reach. If her husband had asked, “Where do we go from here?” after the Ravens game, it seems highly unlikely that anyone would be critiquing how he twirled his fingers. Likewise, the most valid criticism of Brittany is her continued inclusion of her brother-in-law Jackson Mahomes, who was charged with sexual battery (felony charges have been dropped, and he has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor), but it’s rare that anyone asks these questions of Patrick.
Mostly, those who take issue with Brittany simply seem to find her annoying and loud, although I’m not sure that’s exactly newsworthy or that anyone harassing a woman online for cheering on her partner has their priorities in order. It’s worth noting, too, that a significant portion of the Brittany Mahomes villain arc was published by Barstool Sports, which dived headfirst into her behavior after she tweeted that Gillette Stadium security moved her and Jackson during a Chiefs-Patriots game in 2019 when some drunk Patriots fans noticed them and started acting the way drunk fans act. The site’s founder, Dave Portnoy, wrote a blog post titled—sic, obviously—“Is Patrick Mahomes Girlfriend and His Brother The Two Dumbest Humans On Earth?,” and since then the site has published a few dozen articles about her that have likely had some influence on her public narrative. Given Swift’s own history with double standards, it does not feel accidental that she has put her arm around this particular woman so publicly.
I’ve covered the NFL professionally for eight years, which I suppose makes me something of an insider, though I’ve never really felt that way. Football can be fascinating and exciting, and the league is full of characters and dramatic subplots. But the more time I spend around the game, the more I find myself tilting my head sideways at the absurdity of its norms—workaholic coaches sleeping in offices, CIA-style interrogation of player prospects—and the behaviors that are justified based on someone’s value to a sports team. It is a wonderful game, but it is taken way, way too seriously. You also don’t see that many women around, and when you do, they are often working very hard to prove that they belong in the space they’re in. I’ve covered Swift professionally for four years and followed her as a fan for many more, and her music is deeply personal to me. So I can tell you that I’ve found this season particularly fun and refreshing, but when I say that seeing the NFL intersect with broader culture feels right and satisfying, or that Swift’s narrative of womanhood is something I identify with, you should probably know I’m biased.
In fairness, I should also note that Swift is a wonderful artist who is, at times, taken way, way too seriously. But when she’s on the NFL’s turf, what I’ve enjoyed the most is that she has been there completely on her terms, immune to any need to prove that she belongs—even if she’s been criticized, I think we all know who is courting whom here. Swift, who has nothing to gain from the NFL other than a good time supporting someone she loves, has gotten exactly that, and in the process, she’s subverted the expectation that everyone, and especially women, must pledge their deep devotion to the game to be allowed in the door. In her Time interview, perhaps channeling Posh, Swift managed to embrace both the game itself and her non-die-hard status: “Football is awesome, it turns out,” she said. “I’ve been missing out my whole life.” I don’t know how many of this season’s new fans will stick around in the long run, but broadening what it looks like to be a fan seems like a prerequisite for the league’s long-term survival.
While it’s not OK to be angry at a woman for going to a ball game, it is entirely legitimate to feel differently than I do without becoming the proverbial and dreaded dad, Brad, or—worst of all!—Chad. While many, including me, may feel seen, welcomed, and just plain entertained by these displays of hyperfemininity, they stand out so starkly against the hypermasculine backdrop of the NFL that they can outshine other modes of being a woman who’s involved or interested in the game.
I’ve heard from multiple women who follow the NFL closely that they actively feel resentful—and I think understandably so—about the notion that Swift is the only reason a woman would turn on a football game. Beyond that, a trend in both the NFL and the broader culture in the past year (and for much longer) has centered a narrow image of womanhood—almost exclusively white, thin, and rich. There is also the fact that it’s loaded to define a group of women by what their husbands and boyfriends do for work—although Swift’s singular power and the support that Super Bowl players Kelce and Juszczyk give to their partners’ jobs have countered this somewhat.
But that is the power of the WAG. She is the ultimate outsider’s insider. She’s in the box and she’s on the field, amid the falling confetti. But especially in a sport where almost everyone is expected to suppress their individuality for the team, a WAG is the rare person who gets to be there for herself and her family. Maybe that’s delicious to you, maybe it’s infuriating. Either way, the fascination remains.
On Sunday, after a well-documented trip across the international date line, Swift is expected to be back behind the glass of a suite, this time at the Super Bowl, perhaps with Brittany Mahomes as her companion once again. Maybe they’ll have a new secret handshake or touchdown celebration. On the other side, Culpo and Juszczyk will represent the 49ers’ contingent in what must be the most WAG-centric Super Bowl ever. And so the coverage of the biggest game of the year will have a new texture to it—one that’s interested in what these women do, what they wear, and how they celebrate. Maybe you’ll tune in just for that, or maybe you’ll feel a little queasy, wondering whether you’d be welcomed up in those boxes—we’re all just projecting here. But maybe that’s the point—not everyone has always been able to project themselves into the pageantry of the Super Bowl, and that lens is now a little broader. The look and feel of the NFL’s biggest day of the year will be a bit different this time around, as it should be. When the WAGs come through, nothing is ever the same.