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Study: American Tradition of Tailgating

Update Date: Sep 08, 2012 05:55 PM EDT

Tailgating (or for those without grills, cars or patience "pre-gaming") is about the best fun you'll have at a college football game...well, at almost any football game: the camaraderie, the food, the team spirit and, though it might be redundant to mention, the alcohol. Elaborate pre-game parking lot parties are as anticipated (if not more so) by game-goers as the game itself.

And researchers say that tailgating can build a community, nurture tradition, and actually contribute to a school's brand for the fans.

 University of Notre Dame marketing professor and cultural anthropologist John Sherry and co-author Tonya Bradford, assistant professor of marketing, examine American culture and our obsession with football, which Sherry calls "the best metaphor we have for describing American culture." He likens the experience to autumn harvest festivals of antiquity, or what he has termed as "vestavals" named after Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and home.

Sherry explains in a report released by the University that "People literally turn their households inside out, bringing their kitchens and living rooms to the pavement outside the stadium, so that thousands of mini households are on public display on game-day."

"Creating this private space in a public venue is an example of a 'consumption encampment,' during which consumers get together and 'camp out...' But with tailgating, fans are not only establishing family rituals that can pass through many generations, they are also becoming active participants in the game-day experience," Sherry Continues.

Grounding their research at Notre Dame, Sherry and Bradford, and a group of student research assistants, also examine rival teams' tailgates at Notre Dame, as well as tailgates at other college campuses. Sherry says all are rooted in tradition and celebration.

By allowing avid fans to party it up before the game the university is creating its reputation as an open and willing participant in the festivities, just by providing a space.

"Tailgating is actually a very complex social, community building exercise, not simply a drunk-fest, during which fans are able to connect with and actually help create their school's brand and/or reputation." Sherry says

However, the University grounds is not the only place tailgating can occur and in fact location, and even dress, are region specific. The study notes that in the south, tailgaters dress formally in tuxedos and ball gowns. On the coast, tailgates occur in boats and yachts outside stadiums.

Sherry concludes that tailgating encapsulates all the things about America that make America distinct, and tailgating is a nice complement to that.

"If you think of a sport as being a spectacle, the traditional belief is that most people's engagement with spectacle is pretty passive, and they are entertained by it," Sherry says. "People mostly consume spectacle, but tailgating is all fan-generated. They understand it as a contribution to the team's victory. They are literally surrounding the stadium with their expressions of loyalty and love, and it's much more communal."

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