Before making the four-hour drive from Indianapolis to Ann Arbor to see his beloved Michigan Wolverines play, Doug Dillon conducts an inventory of his tailgating trailer: two grills, a camp oven, portable fire pit, a deep fryer, several tables, two canopies with side walls, heater, 18 chairs, two high-definition flat screen televisions, a satellite dish, portable bar, a generator, two flag poles, and two large tubs stacked high with plates, utensils, mixing bowls, pots and other cooking paraphernalia.
“If Indianapolis was ever hit by a hurricane, we could just throw in a couple suitcases and we’d have everything we’d need to set up a new home somewhere else,” said Dillon, owner of Mytailgate.com, an online accessories shop.
That’s essentially what he does every weekend during the college football season; Dillon sets up an elaborate encampment with all the luxuries of home in the parking lot of Michigan Stadium. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars on tailgating supplies, not only because of his love for the Wolverines, but because of the feeling of community that comes with the pre-game celebrations.
And he's not alone.
Tailgating has become a massive industry, generating up to $12 billion a year, according to the Tailgating Industry Association based in Tampa, Fla. People may have given up their season tickets due to the faltering economy, but the party in the parking lot continues unabated.
“Tailgaters don’t have to be convinced to tailgate," said Mark Stewart, executive director of the Tailgating Association. "It’s a beautiful industry that way and has proven to be recession-proof. It’s like a force of nature.”
Tailgaters don’t have to be convinced to tailgate. It’s a beautiful industry that way and has proven to be recession-proof. It’s like a force of nature.
Mark Stewart, executive director of the Tailgating Association
There is no definitive answer as to how tailgating started.
Joe Cahn, known as the Commissioner of Tailgating, spent the past 17 years visiting every football stadium in the country. During his many trips he has heard dozens of theories on the origins of tailgating, including one that claims it began at the small Ivy League schools on the east coast. There was very little parking around the stadiums, so people arrived early to grab a spot. With hours to kill before the game, they gathered outside to eat and drink, Cahn said.
He was also told that tailgating started in northern cities like Minneapolis and Green Bay where it was so cold that people built bonfires in the parking lots to stay warm. Dillon hypothesizes that it could have started in the early 1900s. At the time, many people traveled to sporting events by train, often arriving hours early. Since stadiums didn’t have food vendors, they brought picnic baskets to pass the time before kick-off.
From its inception, tailgating became an important part of the lives of African Americans in the early part of the 20th century, Stewart said.
Black communities didn’t have a lot of money or many opportunities to gather socially except when it came to church and baseball. After Sunday service, the congregation would walk to the stadium in their church clothes, bringing food and drinks to enjoy before the opening pitch.
“There was a lot of community pride” in watching black athletes excel, Stewart said.
Modern day tailgaters see themselves as being connected to the men in raccoon coats and straw hats often pictured in old photographs of sports fans. But those people were typically part of the social elite, while today’s tailgaters have more in common with the traditions of the poor black communities, Stewart said.
“It’s about having that one day a week where ... they can cut loose, enjoy each other’s company and the feeling of camaraderie. Wherever you are on the socio-economic scale, on that one day you’re all equal because you’re all rooting for the same team.”
The widespread popularity of tailgating began in the '60s and '70s when football became a television staple, Cahn said. Cameras broadcast the action in the parking lots, catching the attention of corporate America, which saw an untapped market amid the throngs of fans, beer and barbecue.
The NFL and major universities began to slap their logos on every tailgating product imaginable, from chairs to propane tanks, Dillon said. Every hardcore fan wants to show their team pride, and there’s no better way than to purchase a grill emblazoned with the team colors and mascot.
Tailgating grew organically from the passion of sports fans, but every year organizations like the NFL try to exert more control, Stewart said. When drafting new plans for stadiums, teams incorporate official tailgating zones into their designs where their sponsors can sell beer and food.
“They want to control it and make money off it. The NFL is used to controlling the players, fans and businesses. So I think some of the tailgating out there makes them nervous,” Stewart said.
That is not the only threat to the freedom and spontaneity that makes tailgating so popular. More and more, local authorities are trying to curtail or eliminate the pre-game parties as small pockets of fans become increasingly drunk, unruly and at times violent. Steve Glor, founder of Tailgating Times based in San Diego, puts some of the blame on the manufacturers for creating products that encourage drinking, like the octabong, a 5-gallon container with eight tubes attached so multiple people can funnel beer at the same time.
“I’ve seen a lot of that type of stuff. It may be fun, but you put that in the parking lot and it will draw the wrong kind of attention,” Glor said. “A lot of people are just out at games trying to drink as much as they can and the more people who get drunk and act like idiots, the more authorities are going to want to crack down.”
For most people, however, tailgating is not just a party; it’s an integral part of the social fabric of their lives.
“We’ve gotten to know the people who park around us and now we’re all great friends,” Dillon said. “We celebrate the births of new children and weddings. We’ve been counting down the weeks until the start of the season when we get to see each other because most we haven’t seen since our last game in November.”
And that’s why the end of football season is always bittersweet.
“It’s always the same,” Dillon said. “The leaves have started to change color and fall to the ground. You see those great autumn lights in the evening sky. There’s a real sense of melancholy. You’re packing everything up at the last home game knowing you’re not going to see your friends for another year.”
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The popularity of tailgating has spread outside the confines of sports. Jimmy Buffet concerts are infamous for their raucous Parrothead parking lot parties, as were Grateful Dead shows before the death of Jerry Garcia.
Twenty miles outside of Indianapolis in the small town of Perkinsville is a small restaurant called Bonges Tavern with limited seating. The owners encourage their guests to tailgate while they wait for a table, said Doug Dillon, owner of Mytailgate.com, an online accessories shop.
“They have a nice parking lot, and people put up tents or pull up chairs and have a good time,” he said. “You even have tailgating at the Sante Fe Opera where people in black ties and tails pull wine and sandwiches out of the back of their cars before the performance.”