The New America's Team: How the Chiefs have become the new 'it team' in professional sports

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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) holds the Lamar Hunt trophey as Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce looks on after an AFC Championship NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, in Baltimore. The Kansas City Chiefs won 17-10. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The polarizing moniker is still applied to the Dallas Cowboys these days, regardless of whether it rings as true as it did during their 1990s heyday, when Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith led them to three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span.

“America's Team.”

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The team that much of America loved, and perhaps just as much loved to hate.

In truth, there have been plenty of “America's Teams” over the years. It was the Steelers with Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and Joe Greene in the 1970s. In the '80s, it became the 49ers with Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice. The 2000s, of course, belonged to the Patriots and Tom Brady, Troy Brown and Rob Gronkowski.

The title these days has fallen on the Kansas City Chiefs, who play the San Francisco 49ers next weekend in their fourth Super Bowl in five years. Patrick Mahomes has become the face of the league, a record-breaking crossover star at the game's most important position. Andy Reid has evolved into their mustachioed father figure, and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame as he climbs the coaching career wins list. And then there's Travis Kelce, who happens to be dating pop icon Taylor Swift.

Just like those teams before them, the Chiefs have merged zeitgeist and success to create a rapidly expanding fan base that stretches from the heartland all the way to Hollywood. And abroad, for that matter, as evidenced by the overwhelming support they have received for games in London, Mexico City and Frankfurt, Germany.

“I think you feel it a little bit,” acknowledged Mahomes, who has become ubiquitous on TV even when he's not slinging passes on Sundays. He might be stealing some nuggies from Reid on a spot for State Farm, or manicuring his iconic 'do in an ad for Head & Shoulders or teaming up with Kelce to take on the Warriors' Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in a made-for-TV golf match played at Wynn Golf Club, not far from Allegiant Stadium, where the Chiefs will play the 49ers next Sunday.

“The commercials probably help out a lot," Mahomes continued, “and the run that we've been on. I think until I actually go around the world and see the different types of stuff, I don't think I'll realize it enough, the impact that we've had.”

Reid already has witnessed it. He took a vacation to Italy a couple of years ago and when he walked out of his hotel the first morning, Reid was recognized almost instantly by a group of kids.

“They loved Pat,” he said with a smile. “They knew all our guys.”

Their impact on the NFL has certainly been astounding.

The league was responsible for 24 of the 25 most-watched TV broadcasts during 2023, headlined by more than 115 million viewers when the Chiefs beat the Eagles in last year's Super Bowl. Next on the list was the AFC title game, when more than 53 million tuned in to watch the Chiefs beat the Bengals at Arrowhead Stadium.

In fact, according to Nielsen, the Chiefs were involved in 16 of the 100 most-watched TV broadcasts overall last year.

With huge viewership numbers comes massive merchandise sales, far outstripping what reasonably could be expected of a team that plays in one of the NFL's smallest markets. The sale of Chiefs gear increased by 20% last season to rank fourth among all franchises, according to Fanatics, which takes into account its own website along with the NFL Shop and other outlets, and shipments were made to more than 80 countries around the world.

Mahomes has the fourth-fastest selling jersey in the league, Fanatics said. Kelce is No. 8 with sales up 100% over last season.

On the subject of jerseys, Kelce's game-used threads from a 2015 game recently sold at auction for $19,520, and a jersey from 2019 sold for $36,905. The jersey Mahomes wore when he threw four touchdown passes in win over the Raiders on Oct. 10, 2022, went for $213,500 just last month, the most expensive jersey of his ever sold.

“Chiefs memorabilia has been skyrocketing this season,” said Ken Goldin, founder and CEO of Goldin Auctions, which handled all three sales. “With the record-breaking Mahomes jersey sale and the two highest-priced Kelce jerseys ever selling within weeks of each other, we really see the Chiefs fanfare boosting the memorabilia market.”

The Chiefs have become the “it team” for the Hollywood subset, too.

Jason Sudeikis, Paul Rudd, Eric Stonestreet and Heidi Gardner are regulars at games, though all have ties to Kansas City. Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively joined Swift at a game this season. Brad Pitt often sports a hat with the Chiefs' logo, while Henry Winkler prefers to don the No. 15 jersey of his favorite quarterback.

Melissa Etheridge is one of the longest-serving celebrity Chiefs fans. The rock icon, who grew up in nearby Leavenworth, Kansas, was recently on “Who's Talking to Chris Wallace?” and was asked about Kelce's relationship with Swift, which began with a much-publicized friendship-bracelet saga this past season.

“I think it’s fantastic. I love it," Etheridge told the CNN anchor during their wide-ranging interview. "I’m just worried he’s going to retire early to be with her.”

Spoken like a true diehard.

Just like so many versions of “America's Team," though, a certain amount of fatigue also is setting in. What was once a plucky underdog franchise that hadn't won a Super Bowl in 50 years, and whose quarterback had that adorable Kermit the Frog voice and whose tight end implored everyone to “fight for your right to party," has become suffocating.

They are everywhere. Overexposed. And some fans are downright sick of them.

“I was at a watch party for the games last weekend and every time a Kelce or Mahomes commercial came on, there was this collective groan from the room,” said Justin Johnson, who helps produce the pregame show for Baltimore's flagship radio station, 98 Rock; the Chiefs beat the Ravens 17-10 in the AFC championship game.

“This wasn't a bunch of Baltimore fans, either. I think anyone with that level of success can quickly become the heel," Johnson added, before musing: “We should all be so lucky to be hated like this.”

Mahomes believes the Chiefs still have plenty of work to do before they can be considered “America's Team,” or replace the Patriots as the latest NFL dynasty. He points out that New England won six Super Bowls, tied with the Steelers for the most of any franchise, and the Chiefs have won only three — two since he's been the QB.

They can make it four next Sunday, when they play the 49ers in a Super Bowl trending to be the most expensive ticket in history. So many high-rollers are flying in that private jet parking is maxed out, leaving some to wonder if Swift will be able to find a spot when she is expected to land from her overnight flight from her Eras Tour concert in Tokyo.

“We know nothing is going to be given to us. We’ve got an even bigger target on our back than we did last year,” Chiefs safety Justin Reid said. "But as far as the mentality in the room, we’re working to continue this dynasty, and continue to build on what we did last year, not just rest on our laurels of what we did.”



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