The Taylor Swift-Travis Kelce effect? Why sports romance stories are hot right now

There was a moment early in Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s relationship that seemed like it was plucked straight out of a romance book.

Swift was attending her first Kansas City Chiefs game, cheering for her new lover in a box seat at Arrowhead Stadium. A camera landed on Kelce just as he looked up, noticed her, and broke out into a grin while slowly shaking his head as if to say, “I can’t believe she’s here.”

It was straight out of a romance novel, according to Tessa Bailey, who knows a thing or two about what makes a successful romance. She’s the author of dozens of best-selling romance novels, including a new series of love stories starring athletes.

“As a romance author, it’s almost too good to be true. It’s been so interesting to watch the way he’s behaving like a romance hero,” Bailey says, referencing little moments between Kelce and Swift that have played out in viral video clips.

In the literary world, sports romances are having a Cinderella moment of their own. Is the word’s fascination with a certain pop star and football player’s relationship to blame?

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Where did sports romance novels come from?

Athlete-centered romance novels historically have been more popular in self-publishing than traditional publishing, according to KT Hoffman, author of “The Prospects,” which debuted this spring through top publishing company Penguin Random House.

Hoffman began writing his enemies-to-lovers romance about two minor league baseball players in 2018, and sold the book in spring of 2022, all before the sports romance craze really took off.

To Leah Koch, co-owner of romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice, sports romances have seen steady popularity among her hardcore romance readers over the last eight years or so. But to the general public, hockey romances really took off last year, thanks at least in part to “Icebreaker” by Hannah Grace, a romance starring an ice skater and a hockey player. Since then, other similar stories have gone viral on a corner of TikTok referred to as #BookTok.

“That’s part of what’s so great about romance: People are like, ‘oh, ice hockey romance is a thing?’ And you turn around and discover that not only is it a thing, but you have, like, 50 books that you can read,” Koch says.

"The Au Pair Affair" by Tessa Bailey
"The Au Pair Affair" by Tessa Bailey

Off the ice, more authors are gaining traction with books for other sports: baseball, soccer, basketball and, yes, football. What is it about athletes that writers — and readers — keep being drawn to as love interests?

“The most compelling thing about athletes is that confidence and drive that you have to have in order to be a successful athlete,” Hoffman says. “You have to have worked at it your whole life. … Characters who really want something are inherently going to make an interesting narrative.”

How authors are aiming to change the game

In the past, most sports romances centered around a male athlete and a woman usually unattached to the sports world. There’s a growing number of authors looking to shake up that trope now.

There’s “How You Get The Girl” by Anita Kelly, a sapphic romance between a high school girl’s basketball coach and a former WNBA star. Rachel Reid’s “Time to Shine,” about a hockey team’s superstar and backup goalie. Meryl Wilsner’s “Cleat Cute,” starring two members of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, which athlete power couple Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe's production company recently acquired to turn into a TV show.

"The Prospects" by KT Hoffman
"The Prospects" by KT Hoffman

With “The Prospects,” Hoffman’s goal was to write queer characters who were doing “really incredible, huge things” but still felt like accessible, real people. As a younger person who hadn’t yet realized he was trans, Hoffman probably wouldn’t be reading a book exactly like this one, which veers on the spicy side. But the concept of reading a book with trans joy and love at the center would have been a game-changer.

“I wasn’t fully aware that trans men existed until college,” says Hoffman. “There still are not a ton of trans people in adult romance and I think that says a lot, because romance is first and foremost a genre about joy and falling in love and being worthy of receiving that in return. … I would have seen my life in a completely different way.”

Is this all the Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce effect?

Is it Swift and Kelce’s fault that readers can’t get enough of sports romances? Not entirely, experts say. Traditional publishing moves a lot slower than their less-than-a-year-long relationship.

When Hoffman started writing “The Prospects," he was warned that the book might not sell very well. But after selling it to a traditional publisher in the spring of 2022, there was an “inkling” that it might be on-trend, Hoffman says.

Feel-good soccer show “Ted Lasso” was all the rage. Then came hockey books like “Icebreaker.” And suddenly ”sports were everywhere” in romance.

“I’m really lucky to be hitting the niche at the right time, but there’s really no predicting that,” he says. “Everything takes so long that you absolutely can’t predict what’s going to be popular when you’re writing it.”

Still, amid the Swift and Kelce craze, “nothing happens in a vacuum,” Koch says, noting that it’s entirely possible fans could watch a cute moment like Swift and Kelce kissing on the field after the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win and then seek out books with similar love stories.

Bailey and Hoffman predict interest in this real-life love story will usher in a new surge of sports romances. Bailey originally planned on writing just two sports romances, but now says she already has seven athlete-centric stories plotted out, including ones with more hockey and baseball stars.

“The fascination with them does say a lot about why we find sports romances interesting,” Hoffman says. Just as readers love a story where they can root for the athlete’s success on the field and in their relationship, they’re able to do so in real-time with this real-life rom-com. Even with the NFL in the off-season, fans can find more love stories to root for on bookshelves.

“There was an awareness in publishing that hopeful books were going to be popular for a while, because the world is kind of bleak right now,” Hoffman adds. “Even if publishing couldn’t predict how that would manifest, I’m not surprised that people are writing about (hope) through the lens of sports, which are a very celebratory, communal experience.”

More sports romance books to check out:

  • “The Rule Book” by Sarah Adams

  • “The Au Pair Affair” by Tessa Bailey

  • “Canadian Boyfriend” by Jenny Holiday

  • “Evie Drake Stars Over” by Linda Holmes

  • “How You Get The Girl” by Anita Kelly

  • “Long Shot” by Kennedy Ryan

  • “The Art of Catching Feelings” by Alicia Thompson

  • “Cleat Cute” by Meryl Wilsner

  • “The Wall Of Winnipeg and Me” by Mariana Zapata

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Taylor Swift, Travis Kelce and the rise of sports romance novels