How Tailgating Got Started

How Tailgating Got Started

Where Did the Modern “Tailgate Party” Originally Come From?

Tailgating before football games and other sporting events has exploded into a huge American ritual.  Some tailgating experiences draw thousands of fans – like tailgate parties at pro football games in Green Bay, Wisconsin or college games in Athens, Georgia. While this phenomenon has taken over the sports world, you may not know the story of how tailgating got started.

Green Bay Packers Fans Tailgating

Green Bay Packers Fans – Tailgate Party (Flickr – Ken Fager)

What is Tailgating / The History of the Tailgate Party

Around 145 years ago, in 1869, the first college football contest was held between Rutgers and Princeton. Even though parking lots and cars didn’t exist, tailgating did. For football fans, it started right at the beginning of the sport. But, this isn’t where history says it originated.

The Very First Football Game – Nov 6, 1869. Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4. College Field, New Brunswick, N.J. (Rutgers Athletics)

You have to go back another eight years to find the start of American tailgating. It was actually started on a Sunday on a battlefield at the First Battle of Bull Run. Civilians from both sides arrived with wagons full of food, wine and whiskey to celebrate the war. That’s right, tailgate partying started as an American pastime dating all the way back to the Civil War. However, this likely is not where it originated globally.

tailgating - first battle of bull run

Civilians arrived with wagons full of food, wine and whiskey to celebrate the First Battle of Bull Run – American Civil War. (Library of Congress)

Some say the tailgate party got its global start in France during the Reign of Terror’s final years. When guillotine executions took place it was considered a prime time event. Before the beheading, the names of those to be executed were sold and families gathered for dinner, which was called Cabaret de la Guillotine.

Not only did families gather for food, but people also painted their faces and gossiped in between executions. Stanley Karnow wrote a book called Paris in the Fifties where he discusses the “carnival” atmosphere before many of these executions.

guillotine execution

When guillotine executions took place it was considered a prime time event. (Wikipedia)

So, did tailgate parties start because of the French or no? While it’s not a tradition in Europe before soccer games or any other sporting event, this may have been where tailgating originated. Or, perhaps, did tailgating start much sooner?

A University of Notre Dame professor of marketing and anthropology, John Sherry, did a study called “A Cultural Analysis of Tailgating.” Within the study he compares tailgating to ancient harvest celebrations held in Rome and Greece.

While the harvest parties may not compare to modern-day college students getting drunk before noon, they were communal gatherings including food and drink. In fact, many of these parties included music and an excessive amount of drinking, along with bartering much like we see during today’s epic tailgating parties. It’s not uncommon to trade a beer for a brat or participate in a competitive game, which is very similar in nature to these harvest celebrations.

How Did Football “Tailgate Parties” Get Started?

Tailgating before football games dates back to the first Ivy League games, but the origin is as murky as a used red Solo cup. Some say it started at Yale University. Parking was hard to find at these games and opposing fans would take the train or a bus. Since these fans knew they were typically going to arrive early, they brought drinks and food to enjoy before kickoff.

Other sources like to give credit to Charley Loftus, former Yale SID, for starting football tailgating parties. However, even the author of A Bowl Full of Memories: 100 Yeas of Football at the Yale Bowl, Rich Marazzi, doesn’t believe the evidence is definitive. He stated that it’s hard to say when tailgating may have started at Yale, since people have brought food and drink to football games since that very first one at Rutgers.

Tailgating in Professional Football

While tailgating at football games may have started in college, it was certainly drafted to the professional ranks rather quickly. The Green Bay Packers may be responsible for the start of professional football tailgating parties. The franchise is steeped in football folklore and some say tailgating started when the Packers joined the NFL in 1921. They say fans would bring food and drink in the beds of their trucks or in their trunks to the old City Stadium to enjoy before the game started.

Green Bay Packers Cheeseheads

“Cheesehead” fans of the Green Bay Packers football team come out in droves with their head gear and bratwursts to support the team. (Library of Congress)

However, Cliff Christl – Packers team historian, doesn’t have any evidence to support this romantic theory. He’s on record as stating that it’s hard to prove there was any tailgating at the old City Stadium, which served as the home of the Packers from 1925 to 1956.

There are stories of tailgating parties starting in the 1960s and 1970s at Metropolitan Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings. However, Minneapolis Star Tribune sports editor Christopher Miller has stated there are no archival records of tailgating from the 60s or 70s.

Famous Tailgating Parties and Events

Even though we may not have a crystal clear picture of how or where tailgating originally started, it still adds to the fun of the game. In football, it was certainly born out of fandom and provides an excuse to gather with friends and family for food, drinks and plenty of fun.

There are several famous tailgating parties that happen every year and some college and pro teams are more known for their partying than others. While the Green Bay Packers and the Georgia Bulldogs are certainly on the list of top tailgating parties, they may not be the most famous.

Worlds Largest Cocktail Party - Georgia vs Florida

The World’s Largest Cocktail Party – Georgia Bulldogs vs Florida Gators. (CBS)

Since 1933, the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators have met annually for a neutral site game in Jacksonville, Florida. From about Wednesday through Saturday, tailgating takes place and is known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”  This term was coined by the Florida Times-Union sports editor back in the 1950s. The slogan was used until 1988, until it was stopped due to a series of alcohol-driven college antics.

Another very famous and unique tailgating party is found in Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s a floating tailgate party called “Sailgating,” which includes the so-called Vols Navy docking their boats right outside Neyland Stadium on the Tennessee River.

Oxford, Mississippi makes the list of top tailgate participants, with parties they hold at The Grove. These parties have been compared to the largest party in horse racing – the infield at the Kentucky Derby. The Grove was even named the “Holy Grail of Tailgating Sites” by Sporting News.

Other top places for tailgating include:

  • Notre Dame Fighting Irish
  • Ohio State Buckeyes
  • Oakland Raiders
  • LSU Tigers
  • Wisconsin Badgers
  • Washington Huskies
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Cleveland Browns
  • Philadelphia Eagles
  • Buffalo Bills
  • Houston Texans

Why is Tailgating so Popular?

Tailgating is naturally popular because it brings together like-minded fans supporting one team or another in battle. It’s a community event and provides plenty of fun, food and drinking. Of course, there’s more to it than just the fact that people enjoy it.

While tailgating is found throughout college and professional football, it is also extended to barbecues, weddings, concerts and many other events. Tailgating has actually become a commercial business in some areas. This is very true with the NFL and teams have created things such as the JungleZone in Cincinnati, the Power Party in San Diego and the All-Pro Celebrity Tailgate Party in Boston.

Often, these pre-game parties include celebrities, radio personalities, former players and others for fans to meet and interact with. However, some will tell you this is a diluted way to tailgate compared to pitching a tent in a parking lot and calling it camping.

What is Tailgating and What’s Included in Tailgate Parties Today?

Tailgating is a ritual for season ticket holders at the game as much as it is for fans just watching the game on TV. Often, fans will start hours before the game or even the day before. Of course, tailgating includes plenty of food and alcohol with most of the food fitting in with the local area. It may include burgers, brats, hot dogs, ribs, steaks or any other type of grill food.

Beer Pong Pregame Tailgate Party

Beer Pong at Pregame Tailgate Party (Flickr – jnissa)

No tailgating party is complete without a football to throw around and a few drinking games. Today, tailgating rituals include active beer pong tables, corn hole tournaments and plenty of others. You may even find a spirited game of Jarts, Sholf, Ladder Golf or Polish horseshoes happening.

These parties aren’t without their share of drinking games and gambling, either. Flip cup and beer pong are found regularly at tailgate parties. Many participants paint their faces, put on uniforms and basically dress up in costume for the event. You may be tailgating right next to your boss and not even know it!

It may not be perfectly clear where it all started, but tailgating is a part of the American culture. If you love football, you probably love tailgating.  And, you’re not alone. Even spectators of war and beheadings enjoyed a good tailgate party!


January 3, 2017 / 1 Comment / by / in

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