By 7 p.m. the cars started turning off Route 1 in Saugus, 10 miles north of Boston, and funneling into the parking lot of Kowloon, a kitschy, 1,200-seat Mandarin restaurant and tiki bar originally opened in 1950. This being a pandemic and all, none of these customers had any plans to enter the restaurant, and few were even going to get out of their cars. They were there to watch a massive, 40-foot by 20-foot outdoor screen that would be projecting that night’s New England Patriots game versus the Seattle Seahawks, as well as drinking and eating during what the restaurant called its first ever Sunday Night Tailgate.
“The Patriots are not allowing anybody to tailgate in the [Gillette Stadium] parking lots,” explains Adam Benoit. He’s a director at The Greg Hill Foundation, the eponymous local sports talk host’s charity that organized the event as a fundraiser. Tickets were $75 per car, with à la carte, car-hopped dining options that included everything from crab rangoon to Mai Tais. It didn’t get too out of hand. “Patriots fans are more subdued than most fan bases — that comes with the success of the team. But, there is clearly still a rabid fan base who wants to get out and watch games together,” Benoit says.
For many Americans, the revelry and community surrounding football are more important than the actual games themselves. The arrival of fall means loading up the car, or RV if you’re truly committed, and driving to stadium parking lots across the nation to grill meats, toss cornhole bags, and drink heavily. But what happens when the games are going on but fans aren’t allowed in the stadium, and, in many cases, even the parking lots? For many football nuts, they are finding new avenues for pursuing their passion.
“I just love the experience of tailgating,” says Jim McGreevy, a Chicago Bears obsessive who has had season tickets for 20 years. For home games, he typically wakes up at 6 a.m. so he can get from his suburban Schaumburg house to Soldier Field by 8 a.m. in order to be one of the first five cars in the South Lot premium section, the premier place to tailgate. When he realized that would be an impossibility this year, he decided to tailgate the home opener in his driveway instead.
“I have a 28-year-old daughter who was planning to come. She asked, ‘What time are you starting?’ ‘Lot opens at 8 a.m.,’” McGreevy joked, though indeed, he did have everything set up that early.
He strictly invited his friends, about 30 people, who also tailgate with him at the stadium. Lawn chairs were placed at a social distance on his driveway and front yard and food was prepared in individual portions to prevent any unnecessary handling. A regional sales manager for American Beverage Marketers, McGreevy also had all his products on hand, like Loaded Bloody Mary Mixer, even arranging enormous inflatables on his lawn. By the end of the day the ad hoc tailgate had gone through nine bottles of Champagne, five bottles of vodka, 12 cases of beer, and, of course, some Jeppson’s Malört. The Bears also defeated the New York Giants, 17 to 13.
“It really did feel like a tailgate,” claims McGreevy, who is unsure if he will do it for future games, though he would like to. He’s trying to be as Covid-conscious as possible, while keeping his traditions intact. “I really do want to maintain this as much as possible,” he says.
Still, this is ’murica, of course, and some fans aren’t as respectful as McGreevy. Many, in fact, just refuse to accept that things are going to have to be a little different this year, even if some tailgating meccas, like Penn State’s State College, Pa., are currently overrun with Covid cases.
That’s especially true in the South, not just a Covid hot spot, but a college football hotbed, where Saturday tailgating is a way of life. If around 30 schools like Alabama, the University of Oklahoma, and Louisville are allowing restricted-capacity fans to actually attend their games, these same schools are mostly trying to completely curb tailgating. (Insert plenty of lame jokes about “peaceful protesting” in the parking lot.) Some have still figured a way around these restrictions, however.
“We put together a proposal that outlined and used Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidelines for the state, Department of State Health Services, and put it into a proposal on how we can do a special event that’s socially responsible,” explains Ryan Lepper, who owns Horn-Ball Texas Tailgaters.
Some 18,000 fans attended the University of Texas’s Sept. 12 home opener against UTEP at the 100,119-seat-capacity Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, and Lepper’s company had the only state-approved tailgate outside it. They set up operations in a private parking lot on 18th and Trinity Street, just across from the stadium. Groups could book their own 10-foot by 10-foot, socially distant tent with chairs, tables, and a trash can, food and drink provided by masked servers (costing upward of $500 per group). This was not the typically raucous Horn-Ball tailgates of years past, which have included Fireball ice luges and beer pong, but it still scratched the itch for many Longhorn fans.
“It was just great to be outside, near the stadium, having some drinks,” one attendee, Aubrey, told me. “Ice block drink ramp or not.”
Meanwhile some colleges, such as Clemson and South Carolina, as well as five NFL teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs, don’t have official bans on tailgating, but are still imploring fans to, say it with me, follow guidelines. Masks and social distancing and pods and, please, no “large buffet-style spreads.” But, you try adhering to all that after a keg stand.
“I don’t think the tailgates this year are quite as rambunctious as they used to be,” explains Craig Renfro, the owner and editor-in-chief of Tailgater Magazine, a print periodical with over a quarter-million subscribers. He’s a longtime Cowboys and Texas A&M fan and a passionate tailgater. “You’re just not seeing the craziness of years past,” he says.
At other stadiums, though, the issue of what is and isn’t “tailgating” seems to lie less on health standards and more on pedantry and placating outside observers.
“Georgia is technically not allowing tailgating but they say they will allow people who come to the games together to ‘gather near their vehicles,’ whatever that means,” explains Amanda Mull, a Brooklyn-based writer for The Atlantic, and a big-time UGA fan. “Basically, I think they are trying to ban big tailgates while still letting people tailgate, but being able to tell media that they have ‘banned tailgating.’”
Still, for the vast majority of football fans, tailgating this year will be exclusively done at home, and all sorts of companies are stepping in trying to take advantage of the big pivot to “homegating.” Like the Tailgate Guys, an Auburn, Ala.-based company which, in a normal football season, rents and sets up a variety of tailgating packaging (including tents, coolers, cocktail tables, and even mounted DISH televisions) for fans at nearly 50 schools and three NFL cities. This season they are selling the #TailgateAnywhere package, offering their services to any home or business within 100 miles of their 17 warehouses.
Meanwhile, Lowe’s is hoping you’ll stock up on a variety of chairs, canopies, grills, and even inflatables to build your own NFL-worthy homegate. Sam’s Club too has an entire homegate section on its website, touting everything from frozen waffle fries to 82-inch TVs. There’s even Homefield Tailgate, which will literally sell you a tailgate, sans the rest of the truck. For the diehard who wants to cosplay hanging out in parking space.
“We’ve pivoted ourselves — yeah, the magazine is titled Tailgater, but our motto has always been ‘Your parking lot and backyard BBQ entertainment guide,’” explains Renfro. “We’ve always positioned it as, if you think about it, 80,000 go to a game, but millions watch at home and always have and always will. But you can still cookout on the grill and drink beer and cocktails.”
And, while admittedly none of that is as good as crushing Bud Lights and ice-luging Fireball in a scenic Meadowlands parking space, it does offer one advantage over traditional tailgating.
When the game is over, you don’t have to drive home.