Marketing / 12.03.19
College Tailgating: Smells Like Team Spirit
Tailgating has become a phenomenon wherever major sporting events are held. But there is nothing quite like college tailgating. There is a general recipe for a college football tailgate party. You need a stadium parking lot; picnic-style food prepared out of the trunk of a car, off the back of a pickup truck, or in and around a van or recreational vehicle; and, of course, rabid fans.
But there are some really unique settings, as well. For instance, there is “sailgating” at the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium. There, you can park your boat near the stadium on the edge of Lake Washington and grill your burgers, brats and hot dogs. Or there is The Grove at the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). It’s the scene of some of the best tailgating in the South, with rows and rows of tents with elaborate table settings and food all in a park-like setting. At Louisiana State University, the RVs and tailgate tents have been known to start popping up on the Thursdays before Saturday game days.
All major football powerhouse schools offer a great tailgating scene. John Cross grew up tailgating at The Ohio State University football games.” It’s in my blood,” the Buckeye alum says. “My parents met and were married while students at Ohio State, so through my entire life, we have had Ohio State season tickets, which I still maintain today even though I live in California. We lived about an hour from campus as a kid, so we always made a full day of getting to the game hours early, often attending the marching band’s pregame run-through of their show that day known as the ‘skull session.’”
He continues, “The Ohio State marching band fills the old basketball arena — 13,000-plus people — a few hours before game time to go through the entire pregame and halftime shows before marching across the street to the stadium. The football team walks through the arena at one point and the head coach, now Ryan Day, gets the crowd pumped up with a few comments about the team and that day’s game. As a boy and through my years as an Ohio State student, the skull session was my absolute favorite thing about tailgating. Hearing 13,000-plus fans go crazy when the band plays the fight song and other traditional Buckeye favorites is the perfect way to get fired up for the day’s game. Once the band finishes, they march over to the stadium, and that is the indication you’ve got about an hour to kickoff!”
University of Nebraska fan Teresa Andersen has equally fond memories of her tailgating over the years at Cornhusker games. Her favorite recollection? “A friend of a friend’s parents have a tailgate spot in one of the ‘elite’ university lots, and they go all out. They’re only allowed six guests/paid parking spot, so I haven’t been invited very often. They’re very nice people, but that’s the first time I’ve ever eaten a Sloppy Joe out of the back end of a Cadillac Escalade!”
So, why do so many college sports fans like Cross and Andersen love to tailgate before and after games? “College athletics — and college football, in particular — are steeped in so much tradition,” Cross says. “Tailgating turns attending games into an all-day affair. By getting to parking lots early, fans can escape the worst of game-day traffic and enjoy a pregame party with friends, family, classmates and often fans from the opposing team.”
University of Connecticut graduate Jeff King adds, “I think the tailgates serve as a reunion event or a must-see bucket list event for a lot of fans. Because the dates of the college football games are set so far in advance, it’s easy for fans — especially older fans with families and children — to plan the trip. Most places in the U.S. have decent weather in the autumn, so an outdoor event usually works out well. Not too hot, not too cold.”
Jeff King (far right) and his friends tailgating at a UConn game.
All three agreed that tailgating has changed over the years. King, who has his own podcast devoted to tailgating, says the tailgate itself has become as much of an event as the game. “My alma mater went from having a small, on-campus venue with a capacity of a couple of thousand to a 40,000-seat off-campus venue,” he says. “Tailgating was pretty much an afterthought at my university. There may have been 20 to 30 tailgates set up, mostly because there was no place to park near the stadium, but also because that wasn’t what people did then. Now the tailgate experience can overshadow the game. I know many people who tailgate and don’t even go to the game!”
Cross adds, “One of the biggest changes is due to satellite television. Nowadays, many tailgaters breakout wide-screen TVs and are watching games prior to heading into the stadium to see their own team play. Those tailgaters always attract other fans passing by. There’s a fun camaraderie that comes with sharing your tailgate party — even with opposing fans.”
Andersen adds, “Years ago, most everyone I know who tailgated went to the game. Now that all of Nebraska’s games are televised and people have cable and generators, of our party people, only a handful actually have tickets to the game. Most just come for the food, drink, party and watch on TV with the rest of the group.”
This, of course, opens all sorts of revenue opportunities for the colleges themselves. Jonathan Paul Carroll, Box Office Manager at the University of Texas at Arlington, says, “Absolutely there are! I could see anything from selling team branded tailgating chairs and koozies to setting up a remote box office to sell seat upgrades and tickets to future events. I’ve heard of a few universities here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area with a big tradition of tailgating, selling tailgating packages that come with parking spots, tents, coolers and all the essentials. That seems like a win-win, minimizing planning for fans and adding another source of revenue for the program.”
Tyler Hooper, Assistant Ticket Manager at Michigan State University (MSU), notes that MSU is now partnered with a franchised organization known as the Tailgate Guys to offer fans a reserved tailgating option prior to football games. “They offer different tailgating options depending on group size and food/beverage needs,” he says.
King believes some of the best revenue opportunities are in sponsorships at the tailgates, everything from food tents to activities. He’s heard of colleges sponsoring on-site T-shirt presses or other commemorative memorabilia that could have school logos and appropriate customization.
But no matter how big or corporate college football tailgating becomes, it still goes back to the people, the camaraderie and the team spirit. Carroll describes tailgating as “a VIP lounge that fans create for themselves.” Andersen likes the fact that “no one is a stranger. Everyone is there to eat, drink and be merry, and every tailgate is different. Food, degree of over-the-top, amount of setup — that’s the fun. You can let your spirit out of the bag!”
Perhaps Cross sums it up best: “Tailgating was always a family event. I have one brother and one sister, and we all graduated from Ohio State. We often tailgated together, even after we had all graduated. It’s something that always brought us closer together, all around our passion for Ohio State and Ohio State football. I have many friends across the country that have similar experiences. It’s the strong ties to your school that separate college tailgating from tailgating at professional sports.”
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Tags: Sports , Stadium , Venues , Leadership