Inside Travis Kelce’s rise from talented football player to superstar celebrity

In 2023, Kelce won his second Super Bowl, hosted SNL, rose to podcasting fame and starting dating the world’s most famous pop singer

In the only recent year in which Travis Kelce and the Kansas City Chiefs weren’t playing in the Super Bowl, the NFL star was driving around Los Angeles in early February with his business managers, André and Aaron Eanes, marveling at billboards featuring Dwayne Johnson, the actor and entertainer better known as The Rock.

“Man, I don’t think I’ll ever be as famous as the Rock,” Kelce said.

His co-managers looked at each other. “We’re like, ‘Yes, you can,’” André Eanes said.

The twin brothers had known since Kelce was at the University of Cincinnati that the 6-foot-5 athletic star with the Marvel-character physique, blue eyes and affable charm had crossover potential.


But let’s be honest. Nobody imagined this.

This was a year even The Rock might envy. Kelce, a tight end, won the Super Bowl (his second) in February. In March, he hosted Saturday Night Live. He’s starred in seven national television commercials. The podcast he co-hosts with his brother, Jason, is among the most popular on Spotify. He launched a clothing line with his team.

And he’s dating the world’s most famous pop singer. Perhaps you’ve heard.

Kelce’s sudden conquering of the zeitgeist — being put on the map, if you will — has taken even diehard football fans by surprise. The reality is that most of his ascent has been years in the making — the result of a carefully manicured business plan developed by the 34-year-old Eanes brothers that blossomed at precisely the right moment.

The Chiefs have spent the past few years as the most unstoppable force in football and, along the way, Kelce’s other team has grown to include a creative strategist, a community outreach coordinator, a Los Angeles-based publicist, a personal chef and a trainer. He has four football agents, led by Mike Simon at VMG. In the spring, he also became a client of Creative Artists Agency to feed his budding acting itch.

The Eanes brothers coordinate it all, managing the surging flow of incoming traffic for a piece of Kelce Inc. Film scripts have been shared among the team. Game shows are a consideration. Maybe a few less commercials.

“People say to me, ‘Man, it’s been a crazy year,’” Aaron Eanes said. “When I say, ‘Actually, it’s not that crazy,’ people look at me funny. It’s because it’s easy when you have a plan. We’re executing that plan.”

Before you run to YouTube and TikTok to research conspiracy theories, no, the plan did not include Taylor Swift.

Kelce’s managers have a window of time between the ending of the Super Bowl in February and the beginning of training camp in July in which their plan for the Kelce brand must unfold. Once the season starts, Kelce manifests what he wants on his own.

But while Kelce’s shift into a more mainstream form of celebrity was planned out before he met Swift, there is no question that the doubling of his prospective audience — from mostly men between the ages of 18 and 49 to a far larger group bolstered heavily by Swift’s mostly female fans of all ages — has changed the calculus for where the plan goes from here.

“The awareness of Travis is much larger and with an even broader audience,” said Richard Lovett, CAA’s co-chair. “It’s accelerated that which was probably inevitable in terms of his level of awareness and appeal.”

André Eanes, who manages Kelce’s portfolio of 28 investments, first met his client through Kelce’s college roommate, D.J. Woods, a childhood friend of Eanes, who grew up near Cleveland. They became close when Eanes started an event management business while still in college that booked venues and hosted DJs around Cincinnati. Eanes became Kelce’s go-to guy for a VIP pass.

“He was always the life of the party,” André Eanes said of Kelce. “Everyone wanted to go hang out with Travis.”

At the same time, Aaron Eanes was studying sport management and entrepreneurship at Bowling Green State University in northern Ohio. He wanted to help athletes grow their careers. But he had no interest in becoming a traditional sports agent.

“Agents are contract advisers,” Aaron Eanes said. “I thought instead about a music model and building a business where there’s coordination with all their external providers.”

Aaron Eanes hadn’t even graduated when he began pitching college football players about the services of a manager in addition to a traditional agent. It was an unusual proposition at the time for most players, whose focus primarily was on getting that first professional contract. But Kelce seemed to grasp the bigger picture that his friends were charting. He became the second client of A&A Management, the company that the Eanes brothers still run.

“It was unusual,” said Simon, Kelce’s agent. “I think his thought process at the time was, ‘Let’s all do this together, and we’ll figure it out as we go.’”

Kelce’s first glint of mainstream publicity came in a 2015 feature in Complex magazine, in which he stood on a pool table wearing a burgundy velour Versace jumpsuit and Gucci sunglasses. A short time later, Aaron Eanes got a call from a producer from E! about a reality dating show. “I was like, Absolutely not!” Aaron Eanes said.

The brothers eventually relented, thinking that a TV show might open other doors. After Catching Kelce, which ran for eight episodes and never did find Kelce’s true love, they agreed that reality television was one and done. Instead, Kelce, a lifelong comedy fan, gave his co-managers a lofty goal to chase: He wanted to be on SNL.

Aaron Eanes reached out to the show’s producers during the 2020 season, but their reciprocated interest sounded lukewarm at best. That changed in October 2021 after Kelce dropped into an SNL after-party before a game in Philadelphia and went to work, chatting up (and impressing) Lorne Michaels.

The day after the Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl in February, Aaron Eanes’ phone rang at nine am It was SNL.

“I don’t think he’s even been to sleep yet,” Aaron Eanes told the booking agent.

After walking out onto the stage at Rockefeller Center’s Studio 8H on March 4, less than a month after the Super Bowl win, Kelce choked up during the show’s opening monologue. He had fulfilled a childhood dream and he had brought his family along for the ride: his brother, Jason, the Eagles’ center; and his parents, Ed and Donna, who the Eanes brothers help manage free of charge.

After SNL, the Eanes brothers began interviewing Hollywood agencies that had stronger connections in the entertainment industry.

“We’re just two guys that live in Ohio,” Aaron Eanes joked.

Lovett and Tom Young, CAA’s co-head of sports media, both said that Kelce had an easygoing charisma and a coachable nature that made producers want to work with him. “Decision-makers and those folks that are meant to be visionary about who’s the next potential movie star, those folks had already tapped into Travis even coming out of Saturday Night Live,” Lovett said. “And probably before.”

But nothing was being rushed, Aaron Eanes said. That’s not Kelce’s style. And Aaron Eanes had already been laying the groundwork for his client’s path to the A-list. Throughout 2022, Aaron Eanes had targeted endorsement deals with companies that were not traditional NFL partners — like promoting vaccines for Pfizer, for instance, or a new debit card from Experian. The purpose was to build out Kelce’s resume as a stand-alone pitchman, rather than yet another interchangeable player in a commercial for one of the NFL’s partners, capitalizing on a foundation built by the league.

Danielle Salzedo, a veteran brand strategist who joined Kelce’s management team after 14 years at Viacom, said she has adopted marketing lessons from working with music artists like Harry Connick Jr, who was constantly willing to reinvent himself to reach new audiences.

“That ability to continue to evolve what your image is and stay current but still remain elevated, from someone who is already a global star,” Salzedo said, “is something that I think Travis has the ability to do.”

Kelce’s inner circle insists that his time as a viral celebrity hasn’t changed him. His personal chef, Kumar Ferguson, has been pals with Kelce since they played recreational basketball together in the fourth grade. He drives home-cooked meals (typically wild rice, chicken and veggies) to the Chiefs’ practice facility every day so that he and Kelce can have lunch together.

Despite the growing pile of distractions, Kelce’s longtime trainer, Alex Skacel, said the star tight end’s dedication to football has never been stronger.

Skacel likes to share the story of a visit to Paris Fashion Week a few years ago, when he and Kelce took a late-night jog around the city because Kelce was antsy for a workout after an entire day of sitting by the runway. “It’s midnight, and we’re doing sprints over the bridges over the river,” Skacel said. “No matter where he is, he finds time to get done whatever he needs to get done.”

While 2023 was a nearly perfect year for Kelce, Aaron Eanes said the increased attention has his team considering a potential area of concern: oversaturation. Is there too much of Kelce on television and in the news, and could fans grow numb to the sight of him? The plan for next year revolves around one word: curation. Fewer deals. Quality over quantity. Authenticity first.

After a midweek visit to New York to talk at a sports business conference, the Eanes brothers were rushing to catch flights to Ohio for a few days with family before heading back to Kansas City, where the Chiefs were playing the Buffalo Bills in a clash of two top teams.

The game was decided in the final moments by a penalty that reversed what would likely have become a signature play in Kelce’s career.

Trailing by three points, Kelce caught a pass in the open field. Then, as he was about to be tackled, he showed off the arm he had used as a high school quarterback, throwing a perfect pass back to an open teammate who raced in for what appeared to be a game-winning score. The only problem was that the teammate had lined up incorrectly before the play, which erased the touchdown.

The Chiefs went on to lose the game, but once again, Kelce had found a way to be in the middle of everything.

“We positioned Travis to be world famous,” André Eanes said. “We didn’t know how it would happen, or when it would happen, or what would help push that further along. But it’s always been the thought in the back of our minds.”

This article originally appeared in the New York Times