I was standing in the beer line with a group of Pittsburgh Steelers fans midway through their home game against the Green Bay Packers when a cadre of women with Glamsquad hair walked by. They wore decidedly bespoke yellow and black outfits, emblazoned with player names you typically won’t see worn on fan jerseys. “There go the WAGs, they’re like the Real Housewives of Pittsburgh,” a female fan dressed in more temperature-appropriate attire informed me. “I get my hair done at the same place as her,” pointing to a blonde wearing the last name of Pittsburgh’s placekicker. In a crowd of camo jackets, wool beanies and winter coats, the shiny-heeled boots and excess of tanned skin stood out — but no one said fashion was easy, especially in the National Football League.
A new piece by the Ringer’s Nora Princiotti has managed to do something perhaps thought impossible at this stage — write something interesting about the NFL’s Taylor Swift year, and what it means for both the culture and the business of sports.
Her comparison to the Victoria Beckham era of the mid-2000s is apt, yet there’s just one part of Princiotti’s theses to which I take exception: her suggestion that the NFL has poorly served female fans in the past and that the descent of the WAGs on the sport is an opportunity-filled break from that. She writes:
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 fifty-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.
I have heard this hypothesis expressed occasionally by media types who don’t typically pay attention to sports — and it’s important to keep some perspective on all this. While women are underrepresented as a portion of pro football viewership during the regular season, the total number of NFL viewers is so huge and dwarfs all competition to the point that women still watch the NFL way more than any other sport, by far.
To understand the level of difference we’re talking about: the lowest-watched Super Bowl of the past decade was in 2021, when about 92 million people watched (a far cry from the famed New England-Atlanta comeback, watched by more than 170 million). But roughly half of those were women. By comparison, the 2023 Stanley Cup finals averaged 2.6 million viewers, the 2023 World Series averaged 9.1 million viewers, and the 2023 NBA Finals averaged 11.6 million viewers. The 2022 World Cup final had 25.8 million viewers. Even if literally every viewer for all those professional championship games was female, it still wouldn’t total the number watching even a down-year’s Super Bowl.
The point is, more women are fans of the NFL than literally any other sport and more of them watch it than any other sport — which is why advertising has already shifted in their direction. What Taylor Swift has done is dramatically increase the attention paid to the sport by women who aren’t already sports fans — something that you see in the expanded coverage from media outlets who don’t have any idea what a Shanahan offense looks like.
And this has obviously created a spike in WAG efforts, lived out in competitive “gameday couture” and intentional attempts to go viral to boost makeup artists or designers. The fact that one of the most viral non-Swift moments from the box level was Cincinnati Bengals backup Jake Browning’s girlfriend in her all-white jumpsuit just indicates that we’re only going to see things escalate from here.
The NFL still provides the most drama on television, and now it’s reaching a new demo. Just wait until they start having opinions about Tony Romo’s announcing — that’s when it’s going to get real.