Last Sunday in the NFL, football fans and Taylor Swift fans came together to watch a game for likely different reasons. At the center of that culture mesh was UVA alumna and NBC sideline reporter Melissa Stark. (Photo illustration by Meredith Michael Smith, University Communications)
Melissa Stark has been in the sportscasting business for more than three decades, covering every major event from the Super Bowl to the NBA Finals to the Olympics.
It’s been a blessed career for the decorated University of Virginia alumna, as she’s had a front-row seat to many memorable games, plays and moments.
But just when she thought she had done it all, Stark found something new. Reporting live on NBC from the sideline of the Kansas City Chiefs-New York Jets game last Sunday night, she opened her first segment with a mention of pop superstar Taylor Swift.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d do that,” Stark said, unintentionally using the title of a Swift song to help describe the surreal nature of her latest assignment.
In case you’ve been living on a Wi-Fi-less remote island the last few weeks, Swift, coming off a record-setting concert tour, is now dating Travis Kelce, a star tight end for the Chiefs.
The relationship has led to the blending of two fan bases that seemingly once had little in common – the hardcore football crowd and the “Swifties.” Stark, the sideline reporter for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” since the beginning of last season, took center stage at the intersection of cultures during Sunday’s broadcast as Swift attended the game with a slew of her celebrity friends, including Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman.
“We knew going into the game that we were not going to satisfy everyone,” Stark said. “The hardcore football fans were going to say, ‘Ugh, stop talking about her,’ and the Swifties were going to say, ‘Why aren’t you showing her more?’”
No matter viewers’ reason for tuning in, they did indeed tune in. NBC reported that an average of nearly 27 million people watched the Chiefs-Jets game, making it the most-watched Sunday television show since last February’s Super Bowl.
The network also reported a significant increase in the female audience. Compared to the average of this season’s three previous “Sunday Night Football” games, Chiefs-Jets viewership among girls aged 12 to 17 spiked by 53%; it went up 24% for women aged 18 to 24; and increased by 34% for women 35 and older.
Stark is 49 and has four children, twin 16-year-old daughters Clemmie and Clara among them. That trio went to Philadelphia last May to watch Swift perform at Lincoln Financial Field. Five months later, they saw her again at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
This time, though, Swift wasn’t singing. She was just a famous spectator at a football game.
With Swift in the building, Stark, who resides in New Jersey, brought her kids to work Sunday night. Posing left to right are Jackson, Stark, Clemmie, Clara and Mike. (Contributed photo)
“During our Sunday morning production meeting,” Stark said, “our producer told our director to be on the lookout for dads and daughters at this game, because we heard so many girls were trying to go to the game just to be in Taylor’s presence.”
All of Stark’s kids, including 20-year-old Mike, a second-year student at UVA, went to the game. Clemmie watched it outside the stadium from the NBC production truck, where one screen only focused on Swift, who was seated near Brittany Mahomes, the wife of the Kansas City quarterback.
“We isolated a camera, which we never do for anyone else, just on Taylor the whole night, just for her reactions and everything,” Stark said. “And Clemmie was watching it. It was funny. She said, ‘Mom, she kept asking Brittany all these questions about football. I don’t think she understands football.’”
From the “Swift cam” to a pre-game segment from “The Voice” host Carson Daly, in which he explained the dynamics of the Chiefs-Jets matchup in Swiftie-friendly language, to several ads featuring both the 12-time Grammy Award winner and her two-time Super Bowl-winning boyfriend, the NBC presentation was unique.
“‘Sunday Night Football,’ we always say that it’s not a narrow-cast, it’s a broadcast,” Stark said. “Because on Sunday night, you get a much bigger audience, a different audience. Hopefully you get some people who don’t know much about football. So we try to story-tell and we try to personalize people and give you incentives to watch and give people to root for and things like that.
“Sunday was so fun because we were really trying to find that balance between Taylor and the football.”
Stark’s initial game report – stemming from her conversation with injured Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers – meshed both narratives.
“A lot of star-power here tonight,” she said on the broadcast. “The last time Taylor Swift and Aaron Rodgers were in the same building together, it was here at MetLife back in May to watch Swift perform at her Eras Tour show. He was a fan, rocking out. Very different circumstances tonight ...”
NBC's Melissa Stark reports on her conversation with Aaron Rodgers.
"His plan is to rejoin the team permanently after their Week 7 bye. And he told me his goal is to play again this season." pic.twitter.com/Pwu0u8JfY9
As for the game itself, Kelce finished with six catches for 60 yards as the Chiefs beat the Jets, 23-20. Had the tight end had a more spectacular showing, Stark said there were plans for a live interview with Kelce in which he would be asked to comment on clips of Swift reacting to his biggest plays.
“And it’s his birthday this week,” she said. “So I was going to say, ‘Any fun plans that the Swifties should know about?’”
Though it didn’t take place, the Kelce interview was at least possible. On this night where she said security was at a “Super Bowl level,” Stark felt she had no shot to speak to Swift.
“If there was a chance,” she said, “I would have no qualms about trying to make that happen.”
Stark returns for a much more traditional broadcast this Sunday night when the San Francisco 49ers host the Dallas Cowboys on NBC.