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An estimated 50 million sports fans gather every year to tailgate before supporting their favorite team. Tailgating in itself is a draw since 35 percent of partygoers don’t even make it inside of the stadium. This tradition is often rumored to have started during the first games of the Ivy League schools, but tailgating might be even older.

How Did Tailgating Start?

Who invented tailgating? It all depends on who you ask. The first Ivy League games are often considered as the origin of tailgating, but some tailgating history experts argue that these gatherings predate football games.

Tailgating Might Be Older Than Football

In 1861, the Battle of the Bull Run opposed Union and Confederate troops in Manassas, VA. Civilians gathered to watch the battle. Some of them pushed carts full of food while others brought their own picnic baskets.

The first tailgate party ended in a panic as the Union soldiers retreated and headed straight for the crowd of civilians onlookers. There are no other records of civilians watching Civil War battles so we can’t really talk about a tradition being born yet.

Historians have found another link between the Civil War and tailgating. The U.S. army started using chuckwagons to feed soldiers in 1866. In a way, these wagons are the predecessor of grilling on the bed of a truck.

Similar Gatherings Took Place In Europe

Some tailgating history experts have linked the parties that take place around football stadiums with traditional gatherings and celebrations that took place in Europe throughout the centuries.

Similar spontaneous gatherings took place in France during the 18th century. Guillotine executions had become commonplace during the Reign of Terror and crowds would gather to watch these events and often have food and beverages beforehand.

Surprisingly, the atmosphere would be very festive. Some historians talk about the streets looking like a carnival before these public executions.

The vestaval celebrations in Greece and Rome can also be compared to tailgating. Strangers would gather to share food and beverages before an event such as a religious celebration or some games.

The vestavals would usually be celebrated between the end of the summer to the beginning of the winter, and were often closely linked to harvests. This roughly corresponds to the duration of the football season, which is why these celebrations are sometimes compared to modern tailgate events.

The Origin Of Modern Tailgating

The first American football game took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers. The rules were closer to soccer and rugby, but this game is nonetheless considered as the birth of football in the U.S.

Some onlookers grilled food behind a horse, so the story goes. If this story is true, the word ‘tailgating’ would come from grilling food at the tail end of a horse.

There are no official records of what people did before this football game. It would make sense that fans would bring food and beverages to pass the time. Tailgating might have become a tradition as football games became a more popular pastime, but there is no evidence that this practice started with the very first football game between Ivy League schools.

Yale University

Who started tailgating? Football fans like to claim that their favorite team or school is at the origin of this practice. This might be true in the case of Yale University.

It is believed that Yale University contributed to tailgating history with the small size of its parking lot. Fans would arrive hours in advance to secure a parking spot near the stadium and would eat, drink, and play games to pass the time.

A game that took place in 1904 or in 1906 according to some sources might have been at the origin of tailgating. A group of fans took the train to get to Yale University and arrived at the stadium several hours before the game. Naturally, they brought food and beverages.

University Of Kentucky

There is a rumored that claims that tailgating actually started in 1881 at the University of Kentucky. This isn’t a verified rumor, but this party would predate the gatherings at Ivy League schools.

This rumor claims that students caught some fish before the game. They decide to grill the fish while waiting for the game to start.

Green Bay Packers

It is also rumored that Green Bay Packers fans coined the term ‘tailgating’ in 1919. The Packers didn’t become an NFL team until 1921, but fans had been watching games from the bed of their pickup trucks parked around the team’s field.

The Automotive History Connection

The history of tailgating is closely linked to automotive history. There were only 100,000 cars on American roads in 1906, and Ivy League students and alumni would have been more likely to afford this luxury compared to the average American.

Car ownership became more commonplace throughout the 1920s. Ford introduced the first pick-up truck in 1925 by selling a Model T with a pickup bed. By 1936, Ford had sold 3 million pickup trucks. Trucks became more popular in the 1950s as they started to be seen as status symbols and not as utility vehicles.

By the 1980s, 87 percent of households had at least one car and tailgating was firmly established as a favorite tradition among football fans.


More Than Just Football

Tailgating history shouldn’t be limited to football games. Even though these gatherings gained popularity as the NFL and college football became popular pastimes, similar gatherings took place in connection to other sports and events such as concerts.

Nowadays, tailgating in itself is a major draw. There is an emphasis on the games played during these gatherings, and some stadiums like the Washington Nationals stadium even turn these parties into an occasion to enjoy ethnic food or local microbrews.

Significant Tailgate Parties

Some teams and schools are known for their huge tailgate parties. These gatherings can sometimes last for days and draw more people than the game itself. These are the most significant parties that any football fan should attend at least once in their lifetime.

The Grove

The traditional Ole Miss tailgating takes place on a 10-acre field. The school has one of the most dedicated fanbase that gets together for one of the largest gatherings in the country.

Neyland Stadium

Neyland Stadium is home to the Tennessee Volunteers. One of the particularities of this stadium is that you can tailgate on a boat.

Jacksonville, FL

The Florida Gators vs. Georgia Bulldogs games are always a huge draw. Naturally, there is a large tailgate party that lasts for days before each of these games. This tradition started in 1933 and used to be referred to as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Purdue University

Tailgating at Purdue University is an occasion to see the university’s marching band perform. The university also organizes a StreetFest before each game.

The Jungle Zone

The Cincinnati Bengals host a party known as the Jungle Zone before each major game. The Jungle Zone is an opportunity to enjoy some family-friendly activities, see your favorite bands play, or enjoy some street food.

Qualcomm Stadium

Qualcomm Stadium is where the Chargers used to have their traditional Power Party. The stadium is no longer the official home of the Chargers, but tailgating is still an incredible experience thanks to the San Diego street food scene.

Louisiana State University

ESPN has selected LSU as the best school for tailgating. Partying at the Tiger Stadium is the perfect opportunity to try traditional Louisiana street food.

Fun Facts About Tailgating

How much do you typically spend on a tailgate party? The average NFL fan will spend $196 for each gathering they attend. This adds up to $33 billion being spent each year across the country.

Even though food trucks have become a staple of tailgate events, most fans still prefer to grill their own food. In fact, 40 percent of partygoers prefer to use a full-size grill while 55 percent would rather use a portable one.

What is the most popular tailgating food? Burgers are considered as the best tailgating food by 63 percent of partygoers.

Who attends tailgate parties? Approximately 80 percent of partygoers are men, and 60 percent of them are between the ages of 25 and 44. The average fan attends six to 10 tailgate parties during a football season.

The NFL banned tailgating during the 2007 edition of the Super Bowl due to safety concerns linked to public drinking. The ban was reversed after football fans signed an online petition.

Packers fans hold the record for tailgating in the most extreme conditions. A crowd gathered outside of Lambeau Field in 1967 for what is commonplace known as the “Ice Bowl’ due to the wind chill of 48° below zero.

Tailgating has a long history that might predate football games. There are no actual records of the first tailgate party, but it would make sense that football fans would get into the habit of gathering to enjoy food and drinks before games. One thing is sure, tailgating is a firmly-established tradition with a long history!

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