Gridiron’s grand caravan rumbled away from the neon of the Strip this week and headed 20 miles east, through the splurge of colonies that they have been building in the desert here since the 1940s, up into the hills to the strange and opulent oasis where the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers are staying in the build-up to the Super Bowl.
It is called Lake Las Vegas, this gilded 3000-acre development, with its ersatz suburbs and its retirement homes and its gated communities and its haughty mansions and its luxury hotels and its quaint Italian street names and its reservoir and its golf course that runs like a broad brush stroke of violent green through an arid land.
One day, a local news outlet carried a story that an unnamed player had been attacked by one of the family of coyotes that has been coming down out of the mountains to scavenge for food outside the new delicatessen on the waterfront. A resident said the coyotes had since been ‘euthanised’.
Every day, the NFL’s caravan made the journey out to the oasis in the desert, that monument to the idea that big is beautiful, and brash is beautiful, and it felt like a statement that not even the wild can stand in the way of Vegas and its hosting of the greatest occasion in American sport.
And every day, the players stood at lecterns in their hotels and talked about their hopes and dreams, and television crews fought for space to point their cameras at them, and reporters shouted questions to Travis Kelce about his romance with Taylor Swift, and listened to 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, a committed Christian besieged in Sin City, recite lines from Psalm 23 and speak of his quest for solitude amid this frenzy of attention.
Taylor Swift’s romance with Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce has driven up interest in this weekend’s Super Bowl
Fans have been attending matches just to catch a glimpse of the global pop star
All eyes will be on Las Vegas’ spectacular Allegiant Stadium for sport’s greatest cabaret on Sunday
And every day, Patrick Mahomes, who is bidding to become only the fifth quarterback to win three Super Bowls, was asked whether he could overhaul Tom Brady, who won seven. And every day, Kyle Shanahan, the quiet, cerebral 49ers coach, spoke about his OCD and his mania for planning. And no one mentioned the coyotes again.
The Super Bowl is sport’s greatest cabaret and so it feels like the strangest thing that there have been 57 of them, 57 festivals of excess, 57 paeans to consumerism, 57 entertainment extravaganzas, 57 juggernaut collisions of the best of the USA’s sporting youth and 57 celebrations of Americana, and not one of them has been in Las Vegas, the neon temple of the American dream. Not until now.
If the Super Bowl were a city, it would be Vegas. And now that it is here, now that the Chiefs and the 49ers are set to contest Super Bowl LVIII in front of 65,000 spectators in the Allegiant Stadium on Sunday in the shadow of the gleaming gold windows of the towers of the Mandalay Bay Hotel, blessed by the presence of Swift and watched by an anticipated record television audience, it feels as if the Super Bowl has come home.
Actually, it is more than that. The Super Bowl has not just come home. It has attained nirvana. American team sports recoiled, until recently, from playing in a city so closely associated with the gambling industry, so the union between the game and Sin City is sport’s most exaggerated example of delayed gratification.
All the years of waiting cannot disguise the fact that Las Vegas and the Super Bowl were made for each other. The Super Bowl has found its soul mate. Glitz, meet glitz. Profit, meet profit. Excess, meet excess. Drama, meet drama. Icon, meet icon. Travis Kelce, meet Taylor Swift.
In the romance between Kelce, the Chiefs’ brilliant, rugged, charismatic tight end, one of the best and most decorated players in NFL history, and Swift, the queen of modern culture, the star of this month’s Grammy Awards and the most successful and adored music artist on the planet, the Las Vegas Super Bowl hit the jackpot.
Travis and Taylor are known as TNT for a reason other than the initials of their first names. Their relationship also happens to be commercial dynamite for the NFL. This is the closest thing American Football has ever had to Posh and Becks. But this is Posh and Becks to the power of a hundred.
Swift and Kelce’s relationship is the closest thing American Football has had to Posh and Becks
Swift, who won Album of the Year at the Grammys for a record fourth time, first attended a Chiefs game on September 24th last year when she watched Kelce and his teammates rout the Chicago Bears at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. In the days that followed, sales of Kelce’s number 87 jersey rose by 400%.
Swifties – Swift’s devoted army of largely female followers – soon took to wearing jerseys of their own with the message ‘Go Taylor’s Boyfriend’ printed on them. When the Chiefs played the New York Jets at the start of October in their first game since the romance between Kelce and Swift was confirmed, it was the most watched NFL game since last year’s Super Bowl. More than 29m fans tuned in.
Since then, the NFL has had the highest regular season viewership amongst women since it began tracking watching habits in 2000 and a recent commercial study has suggested that Swift’s association with the sport has added $330m in brand value to the Chiefs and to the NFL. Eight of the nine regular season Chiefs games Swift attended ranked among the top 100 most viewed TV broadcasts in the US in 2023.
So if some of the build-up to a game in which the Chiefs will try to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls for 19 years, attempted to focus on the 49ers’ concerns about the playing surface at its practice facility, it was hardly a surprise that no one’s heart was really in it.
All anyone wanted to know was whether Swift, who has been performing in Japan on her Eras Tour, which has grossed more than a billion dollars in ticket sales, was going to be able to find a space to park her private jet at Harry Reid International Airport when she flies in from Tokyo on Saturday night.
Swift attended her first Chiefs game in September and has regularly watched from the stands ever since
She has been cheering on Kelce, and joined him on the field after the Chiefs booked their place at the Super Bowl by beating Baltimore Ravens last month
Not everyone is a TNT fan, of course, but that only adds to the cabaret. There was a time, when Kelce was going through a lean spell in mid-season and flew to Argentina to watch Swift in concert, when some Chiefs fans started to paint her as the Yoko Ono who was going to break up the band. That went away as the Chiefs closed in on the Super Bowl.
Some die-hard football fans resent what they say is television’s obsession with cutting away from the field to dwell on Swift’s reactions to every play involving Kelce although some basic research showed that, during the AFC Championship game between the Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens a fortnight ago, Swift only appeared on screen for 44 seconds in a CBS broadcast that was more than three hours long.
Other culture wars are not quite so easily resolved, partly because some of the conspiracy theories they are based on are so outlandish. If the story of an American sporting hero dating America’s Sweetheart and making it to the Super Bowl seems too good to be true, some say that’s because it is.
On Monday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell managed a smile when he was asked to respond to theories that the league had fixed it for the Chiefs to make it to the Super Bowl so that Swift would appear at the event and send ratings soaring to new heights. He knows, too, that some among the conservative strands of the NFL fan-base distrust the idea of a rich, powerful woman lifting the profile of one of the game’s stars.
There is a political aspect to these culture wars, too. Swift is loathed by former president Donald Trump and many of his supporters because she endorsed Joe Biden for the office four years ago. Kelce is also in the cross-hairs of elements of the right because he committed the heinous crime of appearing in commercials encouraging Americans to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
Swift’s attendance this weekend will ensure viewing figures are through the roof
But Swift is now universally popular as she is loathed by Donald Trump after the pop star endorsed his rival Joe Biden for president in 2020
Kelce has also received criticism for appearing in commercials encouraging Americans to get vaccinated against Covid-19
For some, the Kelce-Swift romance adds up to a deep state plot to bolster President Biden’s bid for re-election in November. ‘I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month,’ Vivek Ramaswamy, the republican former presidential candidate turned Trump ally, wrote on social media recently. ‘And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall.’
Kelce, 34, dealt with all this, and more, with infinite good grace in his media sessions up at Lake Las Vegas. It is very much to his detractors’ disadvantage that Kelce is not only one of the game’s all-time greats – he recently moved past Jerry Rice to go to the top of the list for most post-season receptions – but he also radiates easy charm and possesses old-school charisma in spades.
When he was asked, for instance, how he felt about wearing a computer chip in his jersey to measure his athletic performance, he smiled and shook his head slowly. ‘I’m an old dog when it comes to stuff like that, man,’ he said. ‘If you want to put a chip on me, that’s all right. I’m just going to go out and play football.’
He answered question after question about his relationship with Swift without ever appearing to come close to losing patience. ‘I feel like it has only given me energy, man,’ he said. ‘I am very fortunate to be in the position I am in life and to have amazing things going for me. You know what, I would be silly to find any negativity in what is going on in my life.
‘What have I learned from being with her? That worldwide fame is a lot different from just being famous in Kansas City. I think I have juggled the perception of my focus. I never wanted the people in the Chiefs building to feel like I was not focussed on the task in hand and that is winning football games. When I am in the building, there are no distractions. The media’s going to run with it, man. You have to control what you are giving everybody.
Kelce insists his romance with Swift is not a distraction and has only given him more energy
‘As long as you keep the distractions outside the building, you can have success year in and year out. Show up every day thinking about the now. Don’t think too much about the future and snap clear of the past. Every year is its own journey. The years we haven’t won since we won our first Super Bowl have felt like the biggest losses of my life.
‘We are here to win this thing. Ain’t no jitters for me, baby. I am excited for this one man. It is going to be one for the ages. I am fired up. I want to get this show on the road, put these pads on and get this game rocking.
‘I’m still here for it after all these years. If you want to do that, find a love for the game. Find a love for the grind. And getting better. And accepting the challenges that come with that. The mentality in the building never changed. Enjoy the incline of getting better. When you have a love for the game, everything takes off from there.’
The narrative of the build-up has been dominated by Kelce and Swift but that does not alter the fact that the 49ers are the favourites. Part of the fascination of the match-up between the two teams is the collision between Kelce, who is just about the most culturally relevant sportsman on the planet at the moment, and Purdy, who has been saddled with the nickname, Mr Irrelevant.
That is the moniker given to the player who is selected last in the annual NFL draft and it was the fate that befell Purdy when the 49ers took him as the 262nd pick in 2022. Not long ago, he was San Francisco’s third string quarterback but injuries to those above him in the pecking order and the way he seized his chance when he got it have propelled him all the way to the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy has been labelled ‘Mr Irrelevant’ after being the last pick in the 2022 NFL draft, but he could steal the spotlight this weekend
Purdy used his pre-game press conference to quote a passage from the Bible
Despite putting up phenomenal numbers, Purdy is still being damned with faint praise, patronised as a ‘game-manager’ whose function is to allow the star players on the 49ers offense to shine. Like Kelce, Purdy dealt with the stream of questions on a difficult theme with relentless good grace.
He referred often to his religious faith and how he has drawn on it to subdue his ego. Only two other 49ers quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, have won Super Bowls but in Purdy’s desire for something approaching anonymity, he made a fascinating contrast to Kelce and the bright light of celebrity in which he lives his life.
‘This year for me has been Psalm 23,’ Purdy said. ‘”The Lord is my shepherd, I have all that I need, he lets me rest in green meadows, he leads me beside peaceful streams”. And then it goes on. It is easy to get wrapped up in wanting to be loved, by your teammates and by the world.
‘I have been studying Psalm 23 throughout the whole season and I keep going back to it. It’s what I start off with every single day. I read Psalm 23 every single day and start off with some solitude and then go about my day.
‘When I pray, it’s not “God, can we win here, can we do something great here”. It’s more to have that peace, that steadfastness, in all the chaos. It’s letting the Holy Spirit take over and lead me here in this moment and allow me to think clearly and have an even keel state of mind.
Las Vegas has already hosted some sporting action this week, with Teofimo Lopez wearing a top hat to the ring for his world title fight with Jamaine Ortiz on Thursday night
Purdy is not bothered about gaining the approval of others, and is happy to go under the radar if San Francisco 49ers can emerge victorious this weekend
‘I think there is more purpose and meaning in life if you are invested in serving your family and friends and your community. That is where you find real purpose in life. Not wanting to be glorified and put on a pedestal above anybody else. That is when you become relevant, when you are serving others and loving everyone and not making it about yourself. It’s not about you.’
That kind of self-effacement will never catch on. Not in these parts anyway. Not on the Strip, among the godless and the gamblers. Not in a city where Elvis impersonators run up and down the aisles at Las Vegas Golden Knights ice hockey games in the T-Mobile Arena.
Not in a city where the WBO world light-welterweight champion, Teofimo Lopez, came into the ring for his fight against Jamaine Ortiz at the Michelob Ultra Arena on Thursday night wearing a top hat and flanked by a sword-swallower and a bearded lady and then fought like a clown. Not that Purdy cares. ‘I’m not trying to live for the world’s approval,’ he said.
But this is Vegas. This is Sin City. This is the TNT Super Bowl. This is celebrity gone wild. This is a union of the vainglorious and the self-obsessed. This is a festival of neon, a tribute song to glamour and glitz. This is the NFL’s fever dream. Purdy might as well be speaking a foreign language.