The Allure of the NFL Tailgate Party


Let’s face it, the NFL is the best run sports league in the world.  Care to argue?  Didn’t think so.  Without addressing all the intricacies of the organization and why it is so lucrative, which, admittedly, I should eventually get around to, I want to focus on what makes gameday so special and unique.

I’ve seen virtually every major sport “live” and on numerous occasions – NFL, CFL, NBA, CBA, NHL, OHL, AHL, NLL, PGA, MLS, CONCACAF, blah, blah, blah.  Still, none of them can match-up to Sunday in the NFL.

As a long-time CFL supporter, football has always been my sport.  I have had season tickets to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for 26 years.  However, I was also a big NFL fan, particularly true of the Buffalo Bills.  I had my first taste of NFL when I was around nine years old.  Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) was massive.  I recall vividly being in awe of the throngs of people making their way to their seats.

A few years ago, I decided to splurge and add season tickets for the Bills along with a couple of friends of mine (one of whom was our very own Ben Kerr).  I knew tailgating was huge, but I didn’t realize the degree to which its participants had it down to a science or art form.

We would leave from my house at around 7am each Sunday, as I lived only thirty minutes to the Peace Bridge joining Canada to the US.  After chatting it up with the border patrol, we made a b-line to the duty-free to pick up some “drinks” and were promptly on our way to Orchard Park, and 1 Bills Drive.  The traffic around the stadium moved very slowly, obviously.  On our first visit we just picked a random spot, but every game after we tried to park beside the same people, and got to know them quite well.

Our new friends showed us what it was like to really tailgate. They had an old, small school bus they bought for next to nothing. After fixing it up, they painted it blue with a red stripe down its side, and added some big, yellow field goal posts on top.  They definitely looked the part, but what was under the hood?  I remember watching these guys unpack this bus in no time at all – they were the definition of systematic.  When the back doors opened, there was a large screen television.  But when they hooked up their satellite to the roof, we all just looked at each other.   They brought out about half a dozen chairs and a couch, and set up a few foldable tables.  The barbecue was full-sized, as you would expect.  They had large Rubbermaid tubs filled with utensils, plates, condiments, paper towels and anything else one would find in a well-stocked kitchen pantry.  They also built a tent around the back of the bus to shield them from all elements – heat, cold, rain and snow.  And for the game on December 21, which was well below zero, they revealed a commercial sized heater, similar to the ones that were used on the sidelines for the games.

These guys, as well-prepared as they were, are not trailblazers by any stretch.  For some of you diehards who have been to many NFL games you might have had the “Been there, done that” line of thinking while reading my experience.  Tailgating is very much a part of the NFL’s gameday experience.  Most serious tailgaters begin as early as league rules allow them.  In most cases, the tailgate is much longer than the actual game.

So what is it that makes tailgating such an important part of the day?

Simply, it’s the like-mindedness of the participants, and the comradery that comes with being a part of a network of fans.  The many traditions that have become synonymous with tailgating have grown out of this sharing of ideas between friends, each time building on the one before.  Tailgating cuisine has become so popular that it has sparked cooking shows, books, blogs, magazines, newspaper articles, radio shows, podcasts, YouTube videos, and so much more.  Most take much pride in their barbecue, and we all secretly (or overtly) size-up the competition each week.

Consuming alcohol has long been associated with a “proper” tailgate.  While I wouldn’t argue the fact, I don’t think it is a necessity that one becomes intoxicated.  Actually, it kind of ruins the afternoon.  Haven’t we all had “that guy” interrupt our party, so incredibly wasted that he can barely stand, attempting to steal some of whatever we’re cooking with his fingers, only to burn them so badly on our grill that we have to pour our precious cargo just to ease his pain?  Okay, maybe that’s just me.  Consuming alcohol isn’t a bad thing, however, consuming for the purpose of becoming so utterly inebriated thereby ruining my afternoon is not okay.  As a slightly older fan now, I would opt for the “Sampling Beers of the World” route.

I didn’t mean for this to be so long-winded.  Rather, I just wanted to share some of the reasons why I think tailgating has been so successful in 100 words or less…oops!  I think anyone who has been to an NFL game and has enjoyed tailgating at least a few times can attest to how important it is to his or her gameday experience.  Those who haven’t, should, at least once or twice.  If it is your first time, do yourself a favour and chat with a seasoned professional.  Get some advice and plan in advance.  Better yet, find someone who has done a fair bit of tailgating and see if you can join them this season. If you don’t know of anyone, just Google “tailgating” and you will have all you need at your fingertips.

…and that is the last word.