Don’t gasp, but tailgating did not begin with football. You gotta go way back to find the first documented gathering in the U.S. where spectators brought meals along to watch a live competitive event. And it wasn’t for a sport. In 1861, townspeople filled their picnic baskets and settled along the sidelines of the Civil War with beer, bread, and blankets to watch the First Battle of Bull Run.
Decades later, football did launch what we think of as tailgating today. At the inaugural college football game on November 6, 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton, when fans gathered to celebrate before the game.
However, since that was long before cars existed, traditionalists might feel more comfortable pointing to the first professional football game on October 3,1920, between the Dayton Triangles and the Columbus Panhandles of the American Professional Football Association, a precursor league to the NFL.
Like with tailgating itself, there’s nothing really definitive about its history, except that people all over the world have indulged in pregame (and post-match) rituals for centuries, for a whole variety of popular sports.
It’s All Natural
If a sport has fans, it likely has parties. In South Africa, for example, rugby supporters congregate in parking lots before a match, just like we do for football games in America. They grill meat and down copious amounts of beer, just like us. There’s no local name for this behavior though, it’s just an organic tradition.
Perhaps tailgating shouldn’t be thought of as an event, and instead should be regarded as a natural form of behavior. Human beings are social creatures after all. We’ve been gathering en masse and making merry since time immemorial. It’s pretty tough to stop organic culture like that, and perhaps that’s why the Super Bowl has had trouble trying to curb tailgating’s growth.
When the NFL decided to ban individual tailgates at the Super Bowl in 2007, fans weren’t happy. Only commercial options were offered. However, that NFL money-making push didn’t spread far. Tailgating is still allowed at every NFL stadium, along with college football, high school football, pro hockey, all levels of baseball, and even frisbee tournaments. Tailgate parties are so popular they’ve cemented themselves into our sports culture, uniting all creeds in pride, passion, and camaraderie.
In the U.S. now, we tailgate most anything. Wedding parties have thrown tailgates before their ceremonies (granted, they were all avid football tailgaters). We’ve even heard of tailgates before PTA meetings.
Tailgating is so universal, it now infiltrates pop culture media, featured in television shows as well as commercials. The “Simpsons,” for example, made an entire episode dedicated to tailgating culture. Homer Simpson even echoed many a tailgater today who can’t dish out for ludicrous pro sport ticket prices when he said he didn’t care about getting tickets, he just wanted to tailgate.
Tailgating isn’t without its controversies, but at the end of the day it’s simply a social gathering in a festive atmosphere we can all enjoy. Tailgating has ingrained itself in our culture, and although the world might not know it yet, tailgate parties are already a global phenomenon.