Tailgating: Is it us vs them?

Crisp fall days, college football games, food, friends and a parking lot are the traditional ingredients for a tailgate party. What makes tailgating unique to the United States? What makes one tailgate party better than another? The answer seems to come down to preference and good old American hospitality.

Listening to the media and political pundits can give a person the impression that Americans are fiercely divided and incapable of speaking to one another — especially along sensitive topics like politics, religion and football. Articles in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times and the Associated Press over the past two years discuss the great divide our nation faces and how to address it.

If anyone doubts football alliances are among those sensitive topics, visit an Ohio State vs. Michigan or Alabama vs. Auburn rivalry game, and you will see how passionate football fans can be.

So, in a situation where the country is so divided, how can an environment like tailgate parties exist? An environment where fans of rival loyalties can be in the same lots, eating, playing music and games, and in the words of Marybeth Albright, National Geographic journalist, enjoying a “traveling al fresco cocktail party that anyone can crash.”

Saturday, before the homecoming game, BGSU’s Doyt L. Perry Stadium parking lot was overflowing with cars, trucks, tents and tailgaters. The atmosphere was festive, exciting and friendly. Party-goers went from tent to tent visiting with friends and celebrating Homecoming.

Seniors Katelyn Salzer, environmental science, Gabby Groff, applied health science and Sydney Burton, education, were celebrating their last Homecoming as undergraduate students. Salzer and Burton had convinced Groff to join them for the festivities.

“You have to go at least once,” Salzer exclaimed as the girls laughed and enjoyed their day. 

Two of the girls felt that hot dogs were the best foods to have at a tailgate, while Burton preferred buffalo chicken dip, claiming it was the best game day food ever.

“I’m glad I decided to come out today,” Groff added. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.”

Seniors Elizabeth Halsey, child and family development, and Katie Morris, business, feel differently about the hot dog being supreme. Halsey prefers chips with guacamole while Morris would prefer to eat popcorn at the game. They were watching friends play cornhole and snacking at their tailgate.

But what makes tailgating so uniquely American? Why don’t British people do similar things before their own “football” games?

Adam Goldstein, a British author, did several years of research into how British people view our tailgate phenomena. He said it isn’t feasible in the UK for several reasons. The first is space.

“In America, most stadiums are surrounded by large car parks,” Goldstein said. “But in the UK, stadiums are mainly in residential parts of the city, surrounded by homes so there is little in the way of parking.”

The UK is also more of a pub-driven sports environment. With the majority of fans walking or taking public transit to the event, they go from the pub to the game and back to the pub to continue celebrating. In the US, with most people driving to the event, a tailgate party makes a lot more sense.

Another reason is the surprising lack of civility between opposing fans of non-American football. While the US has seen occasions of celebratory rioting, traditionally fan-on-fan violence has not been a big issue. In other countries, that can’t be said.

“It’s somehow hard to imagine Manchester United and Liverpool fans cooking each other burgers in a car park. Because of hooliganism, they [the authorities] don’t want our fans integrated before or during the game,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein sees tailgating as an offshoot of America’s more neighborly and welcoming culture. At his first tailgate experience he went as a Bears fan and was surprised to be welcomed into a Cardinal’s tailgate party.

“I was shocked and slightly worried. I thought they were going to poison me. It was just so odd,” he said.

But that’s American tailgating: food (whether it’s just hotdogs or something fancier like buffalo chicken dip), getting ready for the festivities and celebrating life. It seems it doesn’t matter what the best tailgate food is — preferences are varied, as are people — what seems to matter is the celebration, and BGSU does that with the best.