From The Wall Street Journal:
The queen of the football romance is not Taylor Swift. It’s Susan Elizabeth Phillips.
Phillips, whose tenth lusty NFL novel comes out next week, is widely credited with starting the sports romance genre more than three decades ago. She is a 79-year-old grandma who lives in Naperville, Ill., “where the Chicago Stars have their headquarters,” she says. The Chicago Stars don’t actually have a headquarters because they aren’t real, but that’s immaterial to the Americans who’ve purchased more than 2 million of these gridiron books.
While scrutiny of the relationship between Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift buzzes around the stadium when the Kansas City Chiefs play the San Francisco 49ers at this Sunday’s Super Bowl, in the alternate universe of football romance novels, their love story is hardly that exceptional.
“I was ahead of Travis and Taylor,” Phillips says. “They’re copying.”
Phillips isn’t the only one writing football romance. Big hits include “The Wall of Winnipeg and Me” by Mariana Zapata, a 2016 enemies-to-lovers story about an NFL defensive end’s assistant who gets tired of washing his “extra-large underwear” and quits. Romance novelist Alexa Martin, wife of former NFL defensive back Derrick Martin, modeled her hero after Travis Kelce in her 2019 novel “Fumbled,” the story of the Denver Mustangs wide receiver “T.K. Moore.” (“His world is football, parties, and women.”)
In Phillips’s Chicago Stars series, quarterback meets opera diva, quarterback meets feisty detective, quarterback meets portrait painter, quarterback meets particle physicist—different quarterbacks, same meet-cute energy. “Simply the Best,” her upcoming novel published by the HarperCollins imprint Avon Books, pairs an NFL agent with a failed chocolatier.
“Simply the Best” arrives two days after the Super Bowl and a day before Valentine’s Day. It is fitting timing for Phillips, who has turned imaginary NFL pairings into a bestselling career. The author, with 25 books translated into more than 30 languages, pegged the book’s release to the holiday. Tay and Trav were a bonus.
Phillips, whose literary spiciness ranks at more than one chili pepper but less than three, is a fan of the outlandish encounter, like a romp with former Chicago Stars wide receiver (first name Bobby Tom) involving Neapolitan ice cream (“Heaven, Texas,” 1995). She put one heroine in a beaver suit on a lonely road in a move that grabs a football star’s attention (“Natural Born Charmer,” 2007). She stranded her backup QB in the snowy Colorado mountains with a pair of boxer shorts, sneakers and a shivering naked lady (“When Stars Collide,” 2021). She even had a girl detective with “blueberry Pop-Tart eyes” steal her love interest’s Super Bowl ring and plant it on a corrupt prince’s yacht (“First Star I See Tonight,” 2016).
. . . .
“I wasn’t interested in writing the soldier or the cop or the cowboy, but the athlete just struck me as such a great thing to write about because I could play with the stereotype of the dumb jock,” says Phillips, who has also written non-sports historical and contemporary romances. Her first sports romance was a 1989 novel, “Fancy Pants,” about a pro golfer and a fallen society belle.
Phillips started in romance writing when the genre was viewed with more casual snobbery within the book industry. There were no authors on Instagram asking their fans for suggestions or TikTok readers sobbing over the ending of their favorite book. People with a guilty pleasure for romance couldn’t keep saucy titles hidden on a Kindle on their morning commutes.
Early on, she says, the accepted wisdom in publishing was that sports, actors and rock stars didn’t sell to overseas romance readers. But she wasn’t traveling in insider book circles. “I was writing in ignorance,” she says. “It was such a blessing.”
The mother of two boys loved reading all genres and tried her hand at romance writing with a friend when the kids were young. Once she started getting published, she joined other romance writers who were collecting street addresses and building mailing lists for their newsletters. “We started interacting with readers long before the publishers caught on,” says Phillips.
Now such close fan relationships are a key to the blockbuster genre. Nearly 40 million romance novels were sold in print last year, up 8 percent from the previous year and on top of 52 percent growth the year before, according to the market researcher Circana.
Sports romances are a part of the story, with ice hockey especially popular right now. “Icebreaker” by Hannah Grace—the pen name for an author who keeps her face secret from her readers—is a 2023 blockbuster about a figure skater and an ice hockey team captain that has sold almost 1 million copies in print. Golf takes the spotlight with next week’s release of “Fangirl Down” from bestselling author and TikTok fan favorite Tessa Bailey.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)