Big-play category: Tailgating goes deep

At stadiums around the country, some of the most exciting fall sport action is taking place in the parking lots. That’s where fans—more specifically, the tailgaters—are bringing the art of outdoor entertaining to a new level.

Tailgating has kicked off in ways that sometimes boggle the imagination—trailers outfitted with $18,000 smokers and full-service bars aren’t an unusual sight outside any given stadium come the weekend.

“Where we went, they actually had a trailer hitched to the back of the truck,” said Dan Eaton, a Columbus, Ohio, resident and Ohio State University fan. “The people we were with had three TVs set up, and there was a stereo, so it was a sort of full audio-visual experience. There was a door, and you could actually step in the trailer, where they had a full bar.”

Eaton said the area outside Ohio Stadium “gets kind of crazy” as revelers start lining up as early as 5 a.m. on Saturday. Corporate sponsors and beer tents abound; in the end, the fan with the most elaborate, eye-catching, ESPN-camera-grabbing party wins.

Retailers have not ignored the trend.

Both Home Depot and Lowe’s ran promotions this fall on coolers and special grills, tying them into the tail-gating phenomenon.

“We’ve had a great fall in tailgating,” said Steven Benoff, a grills product merchant with Home Depot. “We introduced a brand new tailgating grill, a four-burner stainless steel grill that you can fold down into your vehicle when you’re finished using it. We did a ‘special buy’ on the tailgate grill on the cover of our ad circular just prior to Labor Day, and we did an endcap.” Benoff pointed out that ancillary items to grills—folding chairs, pop-up awnings, grill tools and coolers—are part of the appeal in marketing tailgating items.

Tailgaters represent a demographic that has the tendency to self-advertise as well—that is, numerous blogs, social networking sites and photo collections online give tailgaters the opportunity to show off their elaborate parking lot parties. Web sites for groups like the American Tail-gaters Association and blogs with names like “The Ultimate Tail-gaters” offer barbecue recipes, photos and potshots from fans of rival teams.

Sometimes hardware merchants cross over into the category of fans. In the case of Trent Boyd, manager of Handy Hardware dealer Goodwood Hardware & Outdoors in Baton Rouge, La., one of the store’s biggest fall categories is also a favorite with the employees.

“We cook jumbalayas. We cook gumbos,” said store representative and Trent’s wife Vickie. “There’ll be about 40,000 people out before the game with some huge setups.”

Vickie said her husband starts a typical Louisiana State University tailgating weekend with his friends on Friday—he recently purchased a pricey smoker to entertain guests at his tailgating spot. He camps out with friends in a trailer outside the stadium, returning home on Sunday.

But it’s not just about having fun—the Boyds use the opportunity to network and make business contacts with other members of the community. People tend to walk around and visit numerous tailgating spots, Boyd explained, and it’s easy to meet people because everyone shares a fervent love for LSU football.

“These people go crazy. It’s really a free-for-all, with friends scattered through all the different areas,” she said, “but it’s also a networking opportunity.”

About four years ago, Good-wood Hardware devoted a small four-foot section to outdoor cooking niche products. Since that time, the section has grown to an approximately 1,000-square-foot niche products space, for everything from small Weber grills to LSU flags to higher-end outdoor kitchen appliances from Viking. LSU merchandise is placed throughout the store, including everything from mugs to license plate holders.

“One of our newest ones is a hammock chair that hooks onto a trailer hitch,” Boyd said. “What sells are the tents, for people who are camping out before the game, flags, memorabilia and we’ve been dabbling in clothing. All LSU of course.”

At McGuckin Hardware, an independent dealer north of Denver, outdoor and seasonal merchandise buyer Bruce Ramp sees most interest from University of Colorado fans, with a smattering of Denver Broncos tailgaters thrown in for good measure.

“We’re a little too far from the (Broncos) stadium, but we do stock mostly CU merchandise,” he said.

At McGuckin, the products that are most popular for tailgating are the more practical items.

“It isn’t so much the branded stuff—more like small collapsible folding tables, small barbecues with a screw-on cylinder,” Ramp said. “Of course, there are the flag poles and banners with the CU logo on them.”

Beyond those standard items—and even beyond the trailer hitch hammock and collapsible grill—there are numerous quirky, and often expensive, items now on the market and geared toward tailgaters.

One example is the “Cruzin Cooler,” a motorized cooler that can hold a 300-pound-man and retails for a starting price of around $349. The item, billed by one representative as “not just a cooler, but also transportation,” was featured last month on several television network morning shows.

“It seems to me that tail-gaters are looking for new innovative products that they like to show off,” said Chuck Miller, marketing director for Cruzin Cooler. “Anything with chrome accents, color, style, flair, charisma is going to get attention. There’s lots of walking around, lots of checking out everyone’s stuff.”

The competition is actually part of what drives product innovation, Miller said, as consumers demand to have something different, catchy and flashy for each new game, let alone each new season.

Retailers can perhaps, then, look to next football season for a larger market of tailgaters who want to join in, or who were out-shined at last year’s tailgating parties.

However, Home Depot’s Benoff suggests looking at tail-gating in a different way—not just as a football pastime, but an activity that takes a variety of forms year-round.

“Tailgating, in the end, it’s really taking a grill to an event,” he said. “Whether that’s going to see a Jimmy Buffett concert, or it could be if you live in (New York City) and you’re going to the Hamptons. Whatever that venue you’re going to, it’s a place where you can tailgate.”