Before the National Anthem. Before the lights. Before someone wins and someone loses.
Before all of that there is a long moment when sports fans come together over a cold beer and hot grill in honor of their favorite team or athlete and think, "we could win this one."
Before there are winners and losers, there are tailgaters. But to non-sports the mystery of tailgating is one that is perplexing. Why does it draw such a crowd and what makes it so fun? The answer is actually quite simple: the excitement of the possibility of winning exists and it is amplified by surrounding yourself by other people who want it just as badly.
Hope, tradition, and camaraderie bring sports fans together to tailgate. As long as these three things exist, a tailgate culture is inevitable, whether you are at the track or stadium, in a bar or on the comfort of your own couch with friends.
The Culture Behind Tailgating: 3 Components
You love what you love. That may be a racer, player or team. We become connected to these teams and players as if we know them personally, wishing upon them the best as if they were a son, daughter, niece, nephew, friend or family member. Their win is our win, and their loss pains us personally. But before the game or competition, there is a moment when anything can happen. That moment conjurers hope: the idea that the win is there for the taking and it could belong to anyone. Everyone wins in a tailgate because before game time or race time, everyone has an equal opportunity to win.
Think tailgating is a new development? Think again.
John Sherry, a University of Notre Dame cultural anthropologist, conducted a two-year study of college tailgating and found that the parking lot parties have ties to harvest celebrations in ancient Rome and Greece, picnics during Civil War battles and modern gatherings such as camp-outs at Jimmy Buffett concerts and Occupy Wall Street encampments. He says, "The idea of getting out of your house and feasting and drinking somewhere else is a pretty old tradition. People eat and drink and build up community in the process. It's one last blowout before we hunker down for winter."
So, the idea of gathering over food and events is not only one of ancient tradition, but it's one that takes on many forms--from concerts, to rallies, to celestial events, to sporting events. It is almost ingrained in us to celebrate an event or happening over food and drink and is the reason we associate the smell of charcoal-roasted burgers and iced-down drinks with BBQ's, tailgates, picnics and festivals.
There's a reason every stadium, track, game or tailgate flows with sports fans daunting the same attire, talking the same sports talk and eating the same tailgate foods: camaraderie.
At a tailgate, sports fans become a miniature, temporary community of people. A spectator may scratch their head as to why every week fans would be such a magnet to a tailgate that often dons the same food, entertainment and people. The answer to that is tailgaters have created their own community and culture within the sport that they love.
Tailgating "is more about sharing than it is about competition," and people who participate help build the brands of their favorite teams. "The individual traditions that they are creating add to the larger tradition. They see it as participating in the team experiences," says John Sherry, Anthropologist from University of Notre Dame.
While the culture behind the tailgate may seem perplexing, it quite simply has to do with meeting the needs of the things we want: hope, tradition and belonging. It's a couple hours over the grill, in a parking lot and with friends that creates an environment where there aren't yet any winners or losers, just sports fans.