Someone asks you to go to a sporting event. In your head there is an immediate picture and it may not be inside the stadium. You may envision yourself sitting around a grill, surrounded by cars and coolers full of beverages, laughing and having a good time with friends and the surrounding community. Tailgating has become as important as the event itself.
What is tailgating? It’s a good question if you live outside of America and have never heard of it before. Tailgating is the act of arriving prior to an event and having a pre-party consisting of food, friends and often, lots of alcohol. Typically in a stadium or arena parking lot, it started with people opening up the trunk of their cars and sitting on the tailgate, hence the name. What started as getting a 12 pack and some hot dogs has turned into major parties, sometimes turning the tailgate into a bigger ordeal than the sporting event you paid for tickets to see. Tailgating is about celebrating the team you came to support, and this can’t be stressed enough: lots of alcohol. Today, beer isn’t always enough, or at a minimum you should have some craft beer on hand (or gasoline if tailgating an Oakland Raiders game). Also, the grilling has turned from a simple cook-out of a few hamburgers to a competition to see who is able to cook the perfect T-bone or has the best shrimp cocktail presentation.
Europeans do not tailgate per se, but that has nothing to do with passion. More often their practice is to grab a beer or two prior and along with a sandwich and save their energy for inside the stadium walls. It has never occurred to anyone to bring along a grill to use out in the parking lot prior to a rugby match. Most Europeans and cultures outside of American have no clue what tailgating is all about.
Since not every place has a parking lot, what counts as tailgating? Three rules: First is that there must be large amounts of food and alcohol. It does not have to be grills and coolers and can be for sale (food trucks and bars are acceptable). There must be a sense of community. Finally, the actual event can’t be the main focus at the time (more interested in eating, drinking and “mentally preparing”). This list covers the top 8 cultures, sporting activities and their fans. How does one group of fans tailgate different than others? You will see that not only are there differences between types of sport, but within them as well. One of the reasons we like sports so much is the subtle differences between teams and cities they represent.
8. Major League Baseball
MLB has two types of tailgaters. First, are the true parking lot fans, arriving hours early to park outside the stadium (located in the suburbs or fringe of city) to claim their slab of concrete, and secondly, fans of teams with downtown stadiums and parking structures (not conducive to tailgating) that utilize nearby bars catering to the super fans with early bird and happy hour specials. The best “parking lot” tailgating fans belong to Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies. What did you expect from a team nicknamed Brewers? This fan base doesn’t disappoint, always armed with plenty of beer and meat on the grill. Opening day is an especially big day at Miller Park where it’s not a surprise to see the parking lot filling up before 9am in the morning. Phillies fans are known for keeping handfuls of batteries in their pockets “just in case”; however, they also live for weekend games and come out in crowds to tailgate. For teams without a parking lot to tailgate look no further than Boston’s Yawkey Way, an alley-like strip next to Fenway Park where Red Sox fans can get wicked wasted prior to watching a Sox game. Who’s On First, one of the more famous Red Sox bars is a great place to start, just try to remember what time the game is (also beware of any visiting Philly fans, they take those batteries everywhere they go).
7. National Hockey League
You don’t find many passive hockey fans; you are either all-in or out. This is especially true when it comes to the NHL and their fan bases. Tailgating hockey sounds strange, but it happens, traditional tailgating occurs in the South where it’s always warm and the arenas are surrounded by plenty of parking. The crowds are smaller than other sports (football for example), but they are there, grilling and enjoying a few drinks. If you want to find real old-school hockey tailgating head to New York City the night of a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden. Bars surrounding MSG are packed with fans (mostly male) in jerseys drinking heavily. Favorites include The Flying Puck and Stout, both on 33rd street as well as several bars on 7th Avenue (Triple Crown and the “Mustang” bars) that cater to hockey fans on game night. These are great places to tailgate prior to a hockey game and if you stay long enough, get into a fist fight.
6. NCAA Basketball
This particular sport comes with an asterisk because it’s really not so much during the regular season, but rather the post-season when tailgating is big deal. It starts with television crews which seem to always be a reason to start drinking, especially for college students. A lot depends on the location – often regional games are held in places like Indianapolis and Milwaukee, areas where basketball venues are surrounded by great sports bars. The tournaments have breaks between games which act as a bonus, allowing patrons to tailgate each and every game if they choose.
It’s getting serious when tailgating starts on a Friday and ends on Sunday. Welcome to NASCAR where they have taken the culture of tailgating to a new level. Check out Talladega Superspeedway for a prime example. With an infield large enough to hold Rhode Island as well as miles of parking lots and campgrounds, this is the place to not only watch a race, but celebrate for an entire weekend. People actually arrive before the teams and drivers to claim their spot! Daytona offers a similar environment plus a lake in the infield. Daytona isn’t as decadent as it once was, but alcohol and lakes always equal pure entertainment. If pure redneck love and cowboy hats isn’t your thing check out Sonoma Raceway, a racetrack and fan experience that offers Chablis (this is wine country after all) as well as salads and veggies – again, not a typical NASCAR tailgating experience, but drink a couple bottles of Chardonnay and you never know the difference.
4. National Basketball Association
Like hockey, the NBA is played during cold months, leaving many cities without outdoor tailgating activities. Given this, it’s a good thing that most NBA franchises are located in downtown areas, with plenty of warm bars near the venues. A couple favorites include FedEx Forum in downtown Memphis, a block from Beale Street. Nothing better than eating ribs with some jazz and blues in the background, washing it down with a couple of cold ones and then going to watch hoops. Boston’s TD Garden, located in the North End of Boston is also home to many sports bars that celebrate the great Celtic history. Favorites include Sports Grille Boston where you can order a half-pound hot dog, McGann’s Irish Pub which offers macaroni and cheese as well as shepherd pie and of course The Fours Restaurant and Sports Bar, a place that was ranked was once ranked as the #1 sports bar by Sports Illustrated. Fill up on food, listen to music and of course drink plenty of Guinness prior to checking out the Celtics.
3. College Football
Which college is the best at tailgating – whichever one is hosting ESPN College Game Day, a sure reason to turn any campus into the world’s largest carnival. College football fans like to drink and can be flat out embarrassing, this is a given. There seems to be an unwritten rivalry between the SEC and Big 10 schools over which can provide more over the top tailgating (read: drink more). The SEC seems to be winning. In addition to the party schools you will find Washington and Tennessee fans tailgating on boats (stadiums near lakes) and if you decide to tailgate an LSU football game beware that you may never want to eat out ever again – the food is that good. New Orleans knows food and they know how to properly grill seafood, meat and serve up gumbo to the masses. It’s not all drinking and debauchery, unless you decide to tailgate a Miami U game, then it’s Shots! Shots! Shots!
2. National Football League
Most NFL teams open their parking lots 4-5 hours prior to the game to allow fans inside to begin setting up for their tailgating festivities. This league delivers the very best in tailgating across America. There are similarities in that everyone is there to watch football; however, each city has their traditions, fanatic fans, ways of staying warm in cold cities, and of course, meat. In Pittsburgh you will find steaks as the favorite on the grill and in Philadelphia it’s Italian Sausage. Green Bay will always have thousands of brats cooking and Baltimore fans usually serve up crab cakes prior to game time. How are these meats washed down? Well that also depends on the region, unless you’re in Denver, the self-proclaimed beer capital of the world, home of hundreds of craft beers. Check it out for yourself, they are such beer snobs.
1. The Triple Crown
Think about it, you spend a whole day “prepping” for 1 minute. That is why The Kentucky Derby (and to a lesser degree, The Preakness and Belmont Stakes) is the ultimate tailgating event. Churchill Downs really started the whole “anything goes” within the infield which is crazy because the event (eventually) occurs around this mess. There is also a staple tailgating drink for this event, the Mint Julep, a cocktail that is never ordered except the first Saturday in May. There is plenty of beer and wine as well, but you can also get tipsy drinking daiquiris and blue margaritas – they are all here. Any alcohol you want! Let’s go back to our rules on what counts as tailgating. There is ample alcohol and food, a sense of (decadent) community and not part of (in fact, most would agree bigger) than the event. Thanks to copious amounts of alcohol and much Fear and Loathing, The Kentucky Derby passes the test and is crowned the dubious winner of tailgating cultures.