Economics of Tailgating

Tailgating is a uniquely American activity. Americans love their cars and they love their sports teams. Naturally when the two passions come together we get a nationwide phenomenon. But how much money is spent on tailgating?

The answer might surprise you because it is a bit cloudy.

As much as Americans love their cars and tailgating, we also like stats. All too often eye popping numbers are reported on the impact a particular industry has on the economy. Estimating how much money is spent on a particular brand or type of product is the most popular. So how big is the piece of the pie that tailgating accounts for?

The simple answer is “its a big piece”. But how can we exactly determine how much money is spent on tailgating annually? That is where the predictions and the accuracy can get nebulous.

Those close to the tailgating world hear financial numbers thrown about trying to estimate the total dollars spent on tailgating annually. I’ve heard reports saying tailgating accounts for $500 million to $5 billion in a given year. Quite a wide range wouldn’t you agree?

The problem with trying to predict accurately how much is spent on tailgating is like trying to determine what goods and services will be used for tailgating exclusively. What is a tailgating specific item and what is a product that has an everyday use that can be taken to a tailgating parking lot? Where do you draw the line on how large of an economic impact tailgating accounts for?

Marketers for years have tapped into a fan’s passion for a team to translate into big dollars when it comes to officially licensed products. The question here is, if a fan buys a jersey for the upcoming season, is it because he/she is a fan and will wear it at home or will it be worn while tailgating? Did wanting to display their team loyalty in the parking lot influence their decision to buy a new jersey? Will a sports fan choose to buy the bigger bottle of ketchup because they know they will use it at home but also while tailgating this weekend? When choosing to buy a car, will a sports fan’s decision be influenced knowing this vehicle will also be going tailgating this fall?

The economic impact of tailgating is more far reaching than just portable grills and bags of charcoal.

You can forget talented sales people. Tailgating might be the biggest up seller of them all. Rather than going for the more affordable four-door family sedan, tailgaters will tend to choose the more expensive pick-up trucks and SUVs when buying a new vehicle. After all, you’ll need more cargo room to haul all of that gear you’ll bring for tailgating.

Rarely are products specifically designed for tailgating and tailgating only. Many tailgating supplies have other outdoor applications such as for fishing, boating, picnicing or camping. Buying a portable grill at a home improvement store does not mean it will only be used for tailgating either. The same goes for drink coolers, portable folding chairs and even MP3 players. You would be hard pressed to walk through the tailgating parking lots and not spot these items. Even though they may not be 100 percent used for tailgating, taking them tailgating might have played an influential role in the choice to buy them.

So what is a consumable good that is for tailgating? The short answer is, anything you can buy at a grocery store, gas station, convenience store or sporting goods store. Do we lump a percentage of the monthly grocery bill into the “tailgating economic impact” category? Walk through the parking lots on a football Saturday and Sunday and there is enough food served and consumed to feed a small third world country. The same could be applied to a fill up at the gas station. Tailgaters bring along portable generators to power up portable satellite dishes, flat screens and blenders. Buying an extra gallon of gas for the generator can be attributed to tailgating’s economic impact as well. The problem is that the entire portion goes on one bill, it is hard to determine what percentage is for tailgating.

Because the economy of tailgating is blended with all the other daily activities, determining the exact economic impact will probably never be realized. It is not as easy as trying to determine the athletic shoe market and how many dollars are spent on sneakers each year. It’s just not that simple.

Despite colleges and the NFL reducing tailgating times in recent years, the popularity of tailgating is not going away. In fact, in a down economy when 18 of 32 NFL teams are raising ticket prices, tailgating is a way for fans to control entertainment costs. Look for more sports fans to stretch their dollar by choosing to tailgate rather than buy expensive concessions inside the stadium.