In the United States there are two types of tailgating. One refers to following too closely while driving and should be avoided and the other has become a sport of its own with over 70 million participants each year. When Americans refer to “going tailgating” they are really talking about going to a tailgate party. Wikipedia defines this as, “a social event held on and around the open tailgate of a vehicle.” No doubt that’s where the term originated but the modern tailgate party is far more than just hanging out on the open end of a pickup truck.
Authors Chris Warner (A Tailgater’s Guide to SEC Football) and Stephen Linn (Fox Sports Tailgating Handbook) both cite the first college football game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 as the first tailgate party though Linn suggests the practice of bringing food to party before an event started a few years earlier at the Battle of Bull Run where Union Supporters from the Washington D.C. area brought baskets of food to watch the beginning of the Civil War as it happened. Celebrating before college football games continued to be popular.
Although professional football began in the 1920s it wasn’t until the merger of the AFL and the NFL in the late 1960s and the beginning of Monday night football in 1970 that professional football became what it is today. During this time the advent of the station wagon and George Stephens’ invention of the original Weber portable grill enabled people to bring more people and food to their pre-game celebrations.
NFL and NCAA Football are the most frequently listed tailgating events in multiple surveys. NASCAR races draw huge crowds that stay for several days of pre-race partying with tents, RVs, and massive setups. The main difference is that NASCAR is in a different city every week of the season as opposed to having “home games”. People also tailgate at Major League Baseball games but with 162 games per season for each team it’s not as much of an event for tailgating.
There’s probably no one that knows tailgating as well as Joe Cahn, the self proclaimed “Commissioner of Tailgating”. Since 1996 Joe has been traveling in his RV across the U.S. to all 31 NFL stadiums, over 123 college stadiums, and 9 NASCAR tracks. Along the way he’s met hundreds of thousands of tailgaters and he’s seen the industry come alive with more media attention every year. He’s excited about tailgating growth. “Tailgating gets bigger every year because of the sense of community. It’s become the ‘New American Social,’ the last great neighborhood. More people are participating and more people are learning ways to tailgate better and with gas prices high and ticket prices rising it’s great to know that no matter what you put on the grill from hamburgers to lobsters you’re going to have a great time.”
Tailgating is also big business in the United States. Billions of dollars are spent on food and equipment each year and that’s not even counting tickets to the game or ad campaigns geared toward tailgaters. Freedom Grill, launched in 2002 as “The Official Grill of Tailgating™”, offers gas barbecue grills specifically designed for tailgaters that attach to the tow hitch of trucks and SUVs and ride on the back just like a bike rack with a grill. The grill swings away for cooking and keeping it outside the vehicle makes it more convenient for travel while also leaving more space inside to bring passengers or supplies.
Many fans have setups so elaborate they take hours to setup. In 2008 Tostitos held a “Beat My Tailgate” competition to find the most dedicated tailgaters in the country. The finalists’ tailgate parties feature everything from a circus tent and a manmade “beach” to a customized truck outfitted with satellite, 7 TVs, and a bed that opens up into a rolling sports bar. While a lot of tailgating gear is of the “do-it-yourself” variety, including an impressive assortment of custom buses, ambulances, and trucks; there are so many companies marketing products specifically for tailgaters that there is an industry trade show in Las Vegas just for tailgating products and licensed merchandise. Tens of thousands of people will be heading to Sin City the third week in January to see the latest greatest products.
While there still many people content to throw a few hot dogs or hamburgers on a disposable charcoal grill, many more tailgaters are paying attention to television shows and cookbooks devoted to better grilling and hosting elaborate feasts with meals you’d normally expect to find only in restaurants. Affordable satellite television services, portable generators, and flat screen television sets provide entertainment and of course there’s always an abundant supply of beverages at a tailgate party. Tailgating in America has really taken on a life of its own and the latest surveys state that up to 30% of tailgaters never even leave the lot to go to the game.