With a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, you listen to the roar of the crowd and cheer along for your team. You’re at the stadium, but you’re not inside. You’re in the parking lot, tailgating with your friends. Maybe you just brought some beer and dogs, and you’re wondering how to take it to the next level. Full scale tailgating is a major DIY endeavor, and I got to talk to a master to show you how it’s done.
“Do you collect any money from your guests?” I asked. “Never!” answered Rod Sines. He’s been tailgating at Ohio State Buckeyes’ games since 1972. Back then, the men wore sport coats and slacks (plaid slacks) the women wore dresses and pants suits. The tailgating was literal, setting up on the tailgate of a station wagon. Unable to leave it at that, they built a bar. “It was a shelf we put across from one window panel to the other, and it had a couple of drawers in it. Also baskets underneath for booze… that’s when we started tailgating.”
If you’re sensing a drive to up the ante, you’re right. That bar could have simply been a plank, but then it had to have drawers. In fact, they could have left it all on the tailgate of the wagon and never built a bar at all. But part of the fun of tailgating is seeing how far you can take it. So if you’re headed for the game, and you know you’re going to have a better time in the parking lot than waiting in line for a $10 hotdog, here’s what you need to know.
Step 1 – Never Fear Wretched Excess
When Rod started there weren’t even bathrooms in the lot, so they strung sheets between the buckeye trees. From there it was a short step to erecting tents. “It’s just a whole different gambit than a guy with a cheap, throwaway grill and a cooler.” If you start with a bar in the trunk of a station wagon and sheets in the trees, expect to evolve. “You add something each tailgate or each year. Maybe a blender that runs off the car cigarette lighter. Maybe then a better stereo.” It’s a slippery slope, but slide down it with gusto.
Build a Freestanding Gas Fireplace – Remember, it has to be properly vented and must appear to be directly out of your living room. It helps if you floor your tent with wall to wall carpeting. “And we hide purses in there for the girls, as well as cell phones. And there’s a cell phone charger behind it. Chargers, pardon me, we have five chargers.”
Build a Bar – Make it a hidden bar, there’s going to be kids here. Create a secret room at the back of the tent with a full bar and a BeerTender (or two).
Bring an Ambulance – Since we’re in Ohio, stripe it in scarlet and gray.
Make sure it’s well stocked with “IV bags of Tanqueray, Stoli, and Jack. We had 30 and 60 mL syringes of jello shots, and for young bucks we had catheter bags that we would take out the 4th quarter and let them take bong shots out of the catheter bag.” Now that I think about it, the kids will just have to cope.
Step 2 – Plan Ahead
This isn’t just a picnic, this is a mini construction project. You’ve got tents and tables and electrical and gas and bars and fireplaces to set up. You’ve also got to store all that between games.
Clear a Space – I asked Rod how much space it takes to store all his gear and equipment between games. “You mean the 30-feet by 20-feet of carpet?” he laughed. “The fireplace, all the extension cords (there’s a trunk for those), electronics (another trunk)… the satellite dish. I would say 1 ½ Land Rovers - that’s the size, not the interior. Or the interior of 3 Land Rovers.”
Start Early – Game day is Saturday, but that’s not when the work starts.
“I start packing my Land Rover on Monday. It takes all week, two hours here and there… we pre-cook a lot of stuff. Then you have to plan that foods going to arrive where, when and with what. So, it takes all week to get ready.”
Really Early – Rod gets up at 4:30 in the morning on game day, because he’s got to be at the lot at 5:00 am, “and work my ass off for 5-6 hours. I’m handicapped by the way, so it’s very difficult for me. I get my crew to help, we work 5-6 hours to get set up.”
Now, lay the electrical. Hide it under the tent and secure it across driveways. Set up the satellite dishes and receivers and make sure it’s all connected to the breaker box in an organized grid. And that’s just the electrical and electronics. “We do drawings of this ahead of time and hopefully everything survives until the first battle. Then things get screwy and you end up with zip ties and duct tape fixing things.”
Make It Comfortable – No matter how great the bar, no one’s going to stick around if it’s too hot or too cold. It may not be sexy, but your tents need HVAC. “If it’s hot we put a fan in the ceiling to suck air out and keep the air moving. If it’s cold we have the fireplace and two torpedo heaters like they have on the sidelines. During the Michigan game it was 8 degrees and we had it to 50 degrees in the tent.”
Stock Up on Gas – With a fireplace, heaters and grills, you need enough propane to run it all. “During the Michigan game we take at least four propane tanks. Because you have the grills, fireplace, heaters and you don’t want to run out if it goes into overtime.”
Don’t Forget the Power – Of course, you need light and TVs and music, and that doesn’t come without electricity. “We take two generators in case one goes out. On a simple tailgate I’ll take one generator and two invertors, so that you can put it on the car engine for power if you need it. You have to have your backup plans.”
Bring the Food – Clearly, with a fully stocked bar (and ambulance) on the scene, we know what people are drinking, but what are they eating? It depends who you’re playing.
“The last week it was Wisconsin, so we went for cheese, bratwurst, sausages and a lot of meat and cheese. We’ve done Greek days, where we’ve had gyros, lamb, salads and basic Greek food. We’ve done pasta.” Beware of potluck. “The problem with that is we need like 40 feet of table space because everyone brings a giant dish because they think they need to feed everybody.”
Step 3 – Get into the Spirit
No one gets up before dawn, or preps for a week or more because they have to. This is all about building a connection and building a community. Look back to the first question. This is an investment in sharing.
“It’s a real celebration of life if you will, and it’s real fun, so many people with a common cause.”
Meet Your Neighbors - There are hundreds of other tailgating operations going on all at once. I asked if there’s a competitive spirit among them. “It’s more cooperative and commutative than competitive.”
There may be a little one-upping going on, but it’s in the vein of inspiring the others to greater ideas. And when Rod got tired of his ambulance, he had no problem moving on to more a discrete arrangement with white tablecloths, while others brought ambulances or converted school buses of their own. “People spend tens of thousands of dollars. You should really come here sometime. There’s literally a mile of tailgate parties around the university. There’s probably 35,000 – 50,000 people watching the game from the parking lot.”
Forget the Stadium – The field is there for the players to play on, and the stadium is there to provide a parking lot. Sure, thousands of people fill the stands, but you’re not going to be one of them.
“I usually have tickets, but I usually give them away or something. I have too many people. Once you have 15-20 people at a tailgate they start sticking around for the game. Once you put up the television, that triples and then you have people selling their tickets so they can watch the game in a parking lot. You’ve got the free bar there and all your friends. It’s also comfortable. You’re not sitting on a wooden bench in a giant block of ice. The later it gets in the season the younger the fans are.” Once you’re a part of the collective, there’s no reason to leave the tents at all.
“It’s just so much fun to watch a game crowded shoulder to shoulder with 50-60 people in the tent. When something good happens everybody cheers and they high five each other. It’s almost like a stadium experience.”
Prepare for a Long Haul – A football game lasts around three hours, but you’re not here just for the game. “Across the street there are 2-3 parties with jumbotrons and bands playing. Most of them have 2 bands playing so they can alternate, because they start at 10:00 in the morning and go until 1 AM in the evening if it’s an 8 PM game. It’s just craziness.”
So, next time there’s a game on, whether it’s football or soccer or any other event with a parking lot, plan for a week, gather your gear, get up early and work all day. “What makes you do that kind of craziness?” Rod asked himself for me. “My wife has been asking me that for a long time.” But I think they both know the answer. “We had 87 people watching the football game in our tent. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Ohio, lovely little snow flurries occasionally, it was just a lovely time.”