We are witness to a new dawn of sport, celebrity and fashion cross-pollination; as the stands become the new front row and the tunnels the new red carpet, celebrities like Taylor Swift are whipping up mass-hysteria at sports games whilst teams like Barnsley FC appointing Creative Directors to guide them into a new era. Lauren Cochrane explores the phenomenon as it builds before our eyes.
The image of Taylor Swift cheering on her apparent new boyfriend Travis Kelce at a Kansas City Chiefs game in late September did more than break the internet. It was so widely shared that it appeared on social media timelines, gossip websites and the front page of some very reputable broadsheet newspapers.
It had a direct impact on the profile of Kelce – putting him on the radar of an audience well beyond American football fans. The following weekend, for an NFL game between the Chiefs and the New York Jets, Swifties descended on the MetLife stadium in New Jersey for a chance to see their idol (watching this time with celebrity friends including Sophie Turner and Hugh Jackman) and – in support of her support – cheer on Kelce. The crowd looked more like one found at a concert. There were signs approving of the stars’ relationship, and Kelce shirts with his 87 number mixed with the inevitable Eras merch.
This was, it’s fair to say, a different demographic to the usual fans turning up to support the Jets on a Sunday. Swiftmania was in full effect. Speaking to the New York Times, two season ticket holders said they sold their tickets for $90 each – nearly twice the amount they were before Swift was involved. Shirt sales of Kelce, meanwhile, went up a whopping 400% after the Swift moment.
In the days afterwards, everyone from football fans to Kelce himself played down the hysteria – and responded to the criticism that there was too much attention on Swift, with the camera panning to her frequently at the game. In response, the NFL removed references to Swift on their Twitter account, and the player, speaking on his podcast, weighed in. “I think it’s fun when they show who’s at the game”, he said. “At the same time, I think they’re overdoing it a little bit for sure. Especially my situation”.
Arguably, Kelce, the NFL, and all the people that complained on Twitter are shouting into a void. While Swift’s appearance might be the apex, it’s part of a much wider trend – one where sports, fashion, and celebrity are coming together like never before.
Examples of this are growing. Sports stars are regularly in the front row of fashion shows – Pharrell William’s debut at Louis Vuitton in June saw a plethora of sports stars, ranging from Lewis Hamilton to Marcus Rashford and Russell Westbrook, sit in the front row. At Burberry in London in September, the Premier League was the focus. Bukayo Saka, Eberechi Eze, and Son Heung-min watched on. For Chloe in September, Serena Williams sat alongside stars including Kelly Rowland and America Ferrera.
But while there have been celebrities regularly watching the NBA (see Beyonce and Jay-Z, Jerry Seinfeld, and Spike Lee), and Wimbledon is continually a hang out for royalty and Hollywood royalty alike, the focus has now shifted to sports not previously associated with the A-list, like American football and football football. Kim Kardashian – never one to shirk a brand or content opportunity – has been key. She visited the Emirates to watch Arsenal in the Europa League earlier this year, with striker Eddie Nketiah presenting a shirt to her.
Clubs are no doubt thrilled with this association. Arsenal shared the Nketiah x Kardashian encounter on social media. With Kardashian enjoying 364m followers on Instagram, it’s no surprise – especially when this was only a month after she wore a 1997/98 AS Roma shirt, sending searches for the club online up by 2.3 million over just two days. These kinds of numbers are likely to gain the attention of any sports organisation. The NBA have clocked on: they work with K Pop stars to bring the sport to a younger audience. The Golden State Warriors is the chosen team of these stars – last year, BTS member Suga attended a game, a fact that no doubt boosted sales of the jerseys.
“I have to imagine the NFL is overjoyed to be attracting the interest of Taylor Swift’s fans, who are abundant and largely female”, says Amy Odell, the fashion journalist behind respected newsletter Back Row. “My understanding is that the NFL is constantly working to attract more female fans in particular, and they couldn’t get better visibility than a megastar like Taylor attending the games… In a short time, Kelce went from being someone that football followers knew to someone that people like me, who can barely name three active football players, know”.
It’s not just the teams and players getting a bounce – the celebrities stand to gain something too. Writer and pop culture commentator Paul Flynn says sport brings a different flavour to a familiar timeline. “Fashion shows have a strictness, rigour, and theatricality about them”, he says. “Sports fixtures are of the earth. If you get both right, that’s a fabulous portfolio to carry around if you do both coolly. It’s like spying on a star’s downtime”. With consumers becoming more savvy in the online world, it no doubt boosts that all-important authenticity factor. “The understanding these days is that celebrities go to fashion shows because they’re paid to be there”, says Odell. “As far as I know, celebrities don’t get paid to go to games. Perhaps games really are more of a leisure thing for stars, even though they get PR when they’re there”.
In the age of viral moments, this photo op can be a way to tap into a market that wasn’t necessarily aware of them before. “Celebrities understand the brand value of being seen at a sports fixture, as well as the co-sign they get from a potential new fanbase whose interest they might pique”, says Flynn. “It’s a flex, too: ‘look at how important I am, sitting in the best seats in the house.’ Sport is sexy by association and being a fan rather than a player means you don’t have to get your knees dirty”.
The current alliance between celebrity, sport, and fashion has not appeared out of nowhere. At the Musee des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the exhibition Fashion and Sports charts the connection. Sophie Lemahieu, the curator, says fashion and sport “have been meeting for a long time, there are many exchanges between the two disciplines”. She says an early alliance was between Jean Patou and tennis star, Suzanne Lenglen, in 1920. “He [dressed her in] practical and aesthetic outfits. It was a mutual exchange, as Lenglen also modelled for Jean Patou in daywear”. Flynn also says that celebrity has always been somewhat present in the sporting world. “Sports events have always had a touch of razz about them, in a way that going to the theatre or a gig can’t quite match”, he says. “Each fixture is a unique moment, giving it a nicely tense, gladiatorial element, only heightened when it’s something like the boxing. I love those classic old pictures of Diana Dors swooping in wearing a fur coat, and the Kray twins holding court ringside in the 60s, cigar on the go”.
While there will probably always be so-called ‘purist’ fans of a team who grumble about the distraction of a celebrity in the crowd (see the backlash to Swift’s appearance), things have changed in recent years. Just watch the David Beckham Netflix documentary, and hear the abuse that Victoria was subjected to while her husband played on the pitch. While football chants can still be off-colour, the likelihood of that happening to Swift – or any other celebrity star in attendance – feels remote.
While this documentary was, admittedly, produced by the star, it does make an important point about how Beckham blurred the lines between sports star and celebrity early on, following in the footsteps of athletes like Muhammad Ali, George Best, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. Anna Ross is the Global Head of Insight and Trend at Karla Otto, and co-author of a report on The Influence of Sports, released in October in collaboration with Lefty. She describes the story of Beckham as “a great example of this early-doors relationship between athletes and brand partners, and demonstrates how partnerships used to centre around performance-related products, such as Beckham’s early Brylcreem deal… [these] now span into a much wider scope of opportunities in fashion”. Deals for Kelce, thanks to his association with Swift, are only a matter of time, says Odell.
More than 25 years on from that Brylcreem ad, Karla Otto’s report illustrates the alliances between brands and sports people. Sports and fashion brought brands $78.5m in Earned Media Value in 2023 so far – with the mere appearance of French Formula One driver Pierre Gasly at Louis Vuitton’s menswear show earning $1.6m. Thomas Repelski, Co-Founder of Lefty, says sportspeople are head and shoulders above when it comes to connecting brands to consumers. “No other celebrity comes even close”, he argues. “It’s no wonder Louis Vuitton partnered with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their posts on Instagram represented 20% of the visibility generated in 2022 for the brand compared to the rest of their influencers”. The wider fashion industry is cottoning on to this influence. For the first time ever, an athlete – Serena Williams – was named Fashion Icon of the year at the influential CFDA awards in November.
While Beckham was – for a long time – one-of-one when it came to style chops (Dennis Rodman aside), athletes are now more appreciated for what they wear. This is seen on social media – with @leaguefits and @footballerfits documenting the outfits worn, often pre-game, by players in the NBA and European football leagues. If, once upon a time, these would have largely consisted of shredded jeans and hoodies, players now will wear the kind of labels loved by fashion heads: Prada, Rick Owens, and Dries Van Noten included. Hector Bellerin and Kyle Kuzma are fashion favourites.
This has led to the boom in sports star stylists – particularly with these sports stars realising there are commercial opportunities to be had if they’re noticed for their fashion prowess. Speaking to The Business of Fashion in October, Zakaria Laaboudi, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, confirmed this. “An athlete choosing to partner with a luxury fashion house, rather than having a series of sports endorsements, really helps differentiate their image”, he said. This works both ways. Repelski says working with these sports stars can provide an alternate angle on a familiar brand. “Athletes appeal to a different kind of audience, and sometimes broader than other celebrities”, he says. “Multi-billion dollar fashion houses will need to find new levers of growth, and partnering with athletes could allow them to tap into new audiences that were not that familiar with their brands previously”.
While some sports stars appeal to brands for their personality and play with what they do off the field – Jack Grealish’s cheeky demeanour, for example – athletes come with an inbuilt audience who admire them for excelling at their chosen sport. Unlike other celebrities, given their punishing training schedule and in-built discipline, they are less likely to be involved in any scandal. This means that the alliance can be a no-brainer for brands. Speaking to The Business of Fashion in June, the founder of beauty brand Bubble, Shai Eisenman, explained her choice of US Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez to star in her campaign. “In between shoots we’d catch her studying for her exams in the corner”, said Eisenman. “Someone who is so hard working, excelling in her field – this is exactly the sort of person we wanted to represent our brand”. “Athletes carry some strong values – work, ambition, expertise, sportsmanship, and so on – that can align, or at least doesn’t misalign, with the brands that partner with them”, says Repelski.
Lemahieu says this is an established device. “The association of sportsmen and women with fashion houses is not only lucrative. It allows fashion designers to embrace the beautiful values of sport: perseverance, team spirit, fair play, surpassing oneself… Their image is therefore positively impacted”.
Part of the reach is also thanks to other shifts in culture. “Sport is so ingrained within so much of popular culture that athletes often have more staying power and status than other influencers”, says Ross. Or, as Chris Black, writer and co-host of podcast How Long Gone, puts it: “It’s okay to like everything now. And it’s cool to like everything. In my day growing up listening to punk and hardcore and skateboarding, liking sports was not acceptable. That was not okay: ‘we don’t do that’. And now because of the internet; because of the flattening of culture, it’s cool to be into everything and know about everything and be interested in everything”. This tallies with the spike in sales of Kelce’s shirts after Swift’s appearance. As GQ wrote, “it’s tour merch for the tabloids; a souvenir of a pop cultural moment that may be completely fleeting. Swifties perhaps want something tangible as a signpost of her life, and thus a signpost of theirs”.
There’s another factor in the alliance between celebrity, sport, and fashion – the increasing presence of high profile personalities becoming involved in the business of sport. Taylor Lautner, of Twilight fame, recently professed his love for Burnley on his podcast, calling them “a heck of a soccer team”. As any Clarets fan would probably guess, Lautner isn’t just plumping for Burnley based on their recruitment and pacey style under Vincent Kompany. It’s actually down to his celebrity friends, JJ and Kealia Watt, a power couple of American sport, who played in the NFL and the MLS respectively and now invest in the Lancashire club.
This is part of a trend. As well as Tom Brady (in many ways the David Beckham of the NFL) investing in Birmingham City, there is Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney buying non-league club Wrexham, making two hugely popular TV series about the experience, and getting them promoted in the process. Beckham himself (now arguably more of a celebrity – or brand? – than footballer) bought Inter Miami, and persuaded Lionel Messi to join the team from Europe in 2023, for an eye-watering $60m per season in wages.
Then there’s Barnsley FC – a club currently in League One, that has a perhaps unlikely connection to fashion and culture. Julie-Anne Quay – sometimes known as JAQ – became a minority owner and board member, in 2018. JAQ is a fashion veteran, having worked with Steven Meisel in the nineties, and set up VFiles, the fashion platform, in 2013. She says while she was very aware of football due to her time as a “soccer mom”, this new venture has surprised some of her friends. “I get so many DMs. There’s this great girl who used to run the door all the time at VFiles events. She was like, ‘OK JAQ, what is going on? We’re all confused’. Because all this stuff shows up in my social media”, she laughs.
JAQ, however, believes that there is a certain logic to bringing these worlds together. “I always believe in three global languages – fashion, music, and sport”, she says. “They are the three [subjects] you can always talk about with anyone. If you sit on a plane with someone, you can strike up a conversation”. In fact, she says, what she is doing at Barnsley aligns with what she has done all along. “In fashion, when I was working with Meisel, we would be the ones who would discover new models, right?” she explains. “I was the same thing with VFiles – who is the next Virgil, for example? With Barnsley, it’s a very similar thing. We have a very young squad and we recruit on data. My whole life has been about identifying who’s next, so it’s just a completely natural fit for me.”
The fit extended with JAQ bringing her connections to the Oakwell Stadium. She recruited Colm Dillane, the designer of KidSuper, to create kits for the men’s team. Again, there is logic to this choice. “I love what he’s done with KidSuper, but he’s also a kid who loves to play football”, says JAQ. Still, the surprise that comes with this alliance is part of its power, and its charm. “The great thing is, the Barnsley fans don’t know who he is and he doesn’t know who they are”, she laughs. However, with Dillane onboard, his fans come along – meaning the support for Barnsley could arguably grow exponentially. “Next season we’re going to be selling the kits in New York City”, says JAQ. “So our goal is to take football into the high street, and be able to sell fashion kits”.
The rise of football shirts as items worn beyond match days has been noted by football clubs further up the leagues too. Crystal Palace appointed a Creative Director, Kenny Annan-Jonathan, in August, to work on design. This follows a similar move by French club Red Star, who made ex-Man United player David Bellion Creative Director in 2016. Collabs with brands like Lack of Guidance have put the team, and their shirts, on the radar of fashion-hungry consumers.
With the flattening of culture that Black mentioned, sports stars are more clued-up when it comes to other areas, including fashion. “Colm came [to Barnsley] about a month ago, and he trained with the team”, says JAQ. “Some of the guys on the team are pretty fashion forward, like Devonte Cole and Luca Connell. They were like, ‘is that Colm from Kid Super?’”
From Barnsley to the Beckhams, sport and fashion and celebrity have had a rocky road. But it looks like this is, in fact, a bit of a dream team. Flynn sums it up neatly when he says “success attracts success. The links between celebrity, fashion and sport will only get bigger.”