Tailgating before college and professional football games is an American tradition. Starting in late summer and continuing through early winter, temporary tent cities pop up in stadium parking lots across the country. A haze of charcoal smoke fills the air along with laughter, banter and the aroma of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs.
According to Tonya Williams Bradford, co-author of a 2015 cultural analysis of tailgating published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the modern tailgate has roots in the fall harvest celebrations of Ancient Greece and Rome. Those events were marked with music, community and plenty of food and drink for a final feast before winter’s onset.
“The notion of people gathering around food is not new—when contests emerged for entertainment, it was natural for food to be part of the gathering,” says Bradford, associate professor of marketing at the University of California at Irvine. “For practical reasons, people would travel to watch and would bring meals. This turned into more festive gatherings, transforming the pragmatic into part of the overall experience. So, we find a strong connection between early gatherings and what we observe in modern times.”
Picnic-Packing Spectators Watch a Civil War Battle
What might be considered the first American tailgate took place on a Sunday, but the spectators who participated eagerly awaited a far different clash than a football game. On July 21, 1861, residents of Washington packed picnic baskets and loaded into carriages and buggies for a day in the Virginia countryside. Rather than listen to the bucolic sounds of nature, they followed the sounds of artillery to watch from afar the first major showdown of the Civil War at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Union Captain John Tidball witnessed a “throng of sightseers” and peddlers “in carts loaded with pies and other edibles.” The provisions were more out of necessity than frivolity, according to the American Battlefield Trust, because the 25-mile carriage ride from the nation’s capital took upward of seven hours.
The onlookers hoped the visiting squad would score a quick victory in what became known as the “picnic battle.” Positioned miles from the action, spectators gazed through opera glasses and complained of the obstructed views from the smoke and trees. Despite its nickname, the battle turned out to be no picnic for Union forces, although future vice president Henry Wilson handed out leftover sandwiches to the boys in blue as they scurried away in defeat.
Tailgating Arrives With the Automobile Age
Just eight years later, young Americans confronted each other on football fields. Fans may have dined from a wagon as they watched Rutgers and Princeton play the first football game in 1869. In the 1880s, newspapers reported that well-heeled fans sipped champagne and enjoyed other refreshments while watching the annual Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving game in New York from the luxury of horse-drawn coaches parked on the sidelines.
Coming of age in America at the same time, football and automobiles have always had a close connection. (The National Football League was even founded inside the Ohio automobile showroom of Canton Bulldogs owner Ralph Hay.)
In the early 1900s, the schools that dominated college football—Princeton, Yale and Harvard—also had wealthy alumni who were among the few who could afford the new motorized buggies. In 1906, when automobile registrations surpassed 100,000 for the first time, the 32,000 fans traveling to New Haven, Connecticut for the Harvard-Yale game included motorists who indulged in what might be the first pre-game tailgate.
“The open field about the grounds were simply black with machines parked together in such a hopeless mass as to make it seem impossible for one ever to find his own once more,” The New York Times reported. The newspaper declared that the hungry fans arriving by train “gazed with envious eyes as they neared the field at small parties of automobilists eating tempting viands that had been brought in hampers spread out in picnic fashion on a table cloth laid upon the ground.”
As automobile ownership soared along with college football’s popularity, it was possible for fans from a larger geographic area to travel to games. During the 1920s, colleges such as Michigan and Ohio State responded to the demand by constructing cavernous stadiums that could hold tens of thousands of fans. As it became more difficult for restaurants in college towns to feed the enormous crowds, more fans held “trunk picnics” and dined on blankets in parking lots.
Following the advent of wooden-sided station wagons in the 1930s, fans used the rear fold-down tailgates as seats or buffet tables. Thus, pregame partying was increasingly called “tailgating.” While some credit Yale sports information director Charley Loftus, it’s not clear who, if anyone, coined the term.
Tailgating Explodes with Mass Production of Grills, Plastic Coolers
As portable grills and plastic coolers became mass-produced in the 1950s, hot grills and cold beer replaced wicker baskets filled with wine bottles and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. Suburban grilling culture flourished after World War II and became as much a part of the American dream as a green lawn and white picket fence. Automobile ownership also exploded after the war, with the number of registrations doubling from 28 million in 1946 to 56 million in 1957.
As car culture continued to define the United States in the 1970s, NFL teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and New England Patriots moved from stadiums shoehorned into city neighborhoods into new ones with ample parking. Because of a lack of public transportation to some of the new venues, fans drove to the stadiums, which were ringed by acres of asphalt instead of vibrant neighborhoods with local restaurants and bars.
Given the new venues, a lack of viable dining alternatives and the rising cost of stadium concessions, tailgating spread across the NFL, and some teams promoted parking lot parties and barbecues as part of the game day experience. In 1973, the San Francisco 49ers even gave fans booklets with recipes written by wives of the players.
In some cases, tailgating evolved from being a pigskin appetizer to the main course itself. The festivities before the annual college game between Florida and Georgia in Jacksonville, Florida began as early as the Wednesday before kickoff. That led Florida Times-Union columnist and editor Bill Kastelz to dub it “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” in 1958.
Although tailgating before other college and professional sporting events occurs in select cities, the pregame tradition is nowhere near as universal as it is with football. Bradford says timing is part of the reason.
“Football season is alongside the harvest season, so it feels natural to have tailgates with bountiful tables throughout the fall,” she says. “There is also the fandom with football that is not as prevalent with other sports—particularly with collegiate sports. There are often multi-generation familial relationships with universities and teams, which result in annual pilgrimages of alums to return home and enact tailgate rituals.”