Football’s Best Tailgaters

22 09 2011

ESPN Magazine told me to find the country’s best tailgates for its GO section. That was an assignment handed to me two Tuesdays ago, due the following Monday and in the issue which drops this week. The idea was to find the best NFL tailgating spots; I expanded it to college football to capture a few of the traditions held on campuses a handful of Saturdays each Fall.

I eventually amended the story’s angle by targeting a specific tailgater for a select number of teams, rather than try to describe the tailgating culture, or atmosphere, of an entire NFL or college team. Given the limited space in which we have to write stories for GO, I thought it would be easier to detail specifics of a tailgater’s typical experience instead of an entire team’s tailgate scene.

The number of capsules I would have to write – one capsule for each team – wasn’t clear to me. The word count expanded during the week as I found more and more information. I had basically three days to do this, Wednesday – Friday. So, I had to hit it fast, which I did by emailing each NFL team’s PR department and 10-15 college team PR or SID departments. I estimated that I would have to do 6-8 capsules by the time the word count was somewhat finalized. (That’s usually a fluid process with these types of stories. And whatever I turn in will eventually get cut down as editors design their pages.)

Three things were imperative to the story as I began receiving information from teams: 1) I had to try to split teams between the NFL and college, 2) all, or at least most, regions of the country should be represented and 3) I would go after the tailgaters of teams that got back to me first. I was relying mostly on teams to tell me who their fanatic tailgaters were, and I didn’t have time to wait around for teams to get back. But it was tough.

For instance, I really wanted the Packers in there, but they had a Thursday night home game to start the NFL season. There was virtually no chance their PR department would have time to help me. So, I tried the University of Wisconsin, which is in this story. I figured the Seattle area would have something special to offer, and the University of Washington happened to have a very cool tailgating tradition. They’re in there. I wasn’t sure I needed another West Coast team, but the San Diego Chargers had die-hard tailgaters, two of whom I spoke with. One of them is in the story.

I didn’t feel as though the Rocky Mountain region was critical for inclusion, but the University of Colorado had an angle that doesn’t represent a team’s typical tailgate. I thought it might be refreshing to have their family-style atmosphere in a story which would inevitably have the drinking details that is associated with the story’s topic.

Now, the Midwest and the South definitely needed a couple of representatives. The KC Chiefs are a natural fit, but I didn’t hear from their people right away. I did hear back from the Houston Texans, who were exceedingly informational. We all know Texas barbeque is amazing, and the Texans had a boatload of willing “super tailgaters” who wanted to talk to me. I chose one of them for the story. Still, I needed another. I tried a group of New Orleans Saints tailgaters, but they never got back to me. The folks at LSU didn’t get back to me. But I did get in touch with the Ole Miss athletics department, who gave me a few leads. I ended up talking with one of their tailgaters, who has extended me an open invitation to join him for a tailgate whenever I find myself in Oxford. I hope to one day take him up on it.

Washington, the Chargers, Colorado, Wisconsin, the Texans and Ole Miss ended up being the six that made it into the story. I tried a few other teams, particularly the Cincy Bengals, but the editorial process sometimes weeds out information. It’s not ideal, but it’s a reality. I tried to find the most details I could in the amount of space I was given. Hopefully, this gives you a somewhat valuable peek into the football tailgates which exist throughout this country.

Click on the link below to read the story:

Football Tailgates

(I’ll tweet about additional story details Friday, Sept. 23 by using the #tailgate hashtag.)

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