Posted: October 01, 2011

Sports biz: Get yer grill on

Stewart Schley

We did not know this and you did not know this, but apparently tailgating is now a sport.

We know: It seems curious. An activity in which people festoon themselves with face paint and smear hot wing sauce over a good share of their jaws does not seem to meet the basic requirements of sport, which generally demands eye-hand coordination and occasional deep breaths of oxygen. Skeptics sniff that even golf or auto racing aren't sports.

But to them, and to all disbelievers, we point to the triumphant headline on a recent edition of Tailgater Monthly (swear to God), which proclaims not only that tailgating is a sport, but that it is "America's Fastest Growing Sport."

So with the facts firmly established, it is now appropriate to examine the dynamics of this athletic category from a business standpoint, which is the reader service this column promises.

Our investigation reveals that tailgating proponents are dead serious about doing what sports-business entrepreneurs do best, which is to take an organically conceived diversion and turn it into serious money. Like they did with street hockey and fantasy football. And so it is that what you thought of as a few hours of socializing in the parking lot before a game is now in fact A Large Market with Impressive Demographics.

The American Tailgating Association - and please don't scoff at the idea of an American Tailgating Association, because really, who else is going to give the tailgater a voice at the national level? - estimates 50 million people tailgate at football games and events in the U.S. annually.

This participant pool supports an estimated $20 billion in annual spending, or about $400 per person, on food, beverages, outdoor gear, customized motor homes and those little team-logo decals women glue to their cheekbones. (We know: $400 seems like a stretch, although if you figure each tailgater hits the parking lot several times a year, the math could work.)

More to the point, the tailgate crowd is what marketers think of as a highly desirable cohort, with a majority of participants having college degrees, owning homes and falling into the 24-54 age range. Retailers like the tailgate market because it fits between the back-to-school and holiday buying seasons, so they're devoting more floor space to tailgate products.

These facts are rattled off staccato style by Mark Heineken, the chief brand officer of Bravo Sports Corp., an Orange County, Calif., sports product manufacturer. Heineken, whose company rolled a 21,000-pound customized tailgate truck over to Sports Authority Field for the Broncos' home opener to cook for fans, is an authoritative source on the tailgate economy for two reasons. First, his last name is Heineken. Second, he has studied the market like Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees, poring over research and conducting anthropological observations about tailgater behavior, which actually does resemble chimpanzee social organization to an extent, except with grilling involved.

Heineken's latest contribution to Tailgate Nation is the Blacktop 360. If the legendary TV pitchman Ron Popeil had invented a grill, this would be it. The Blacktop 360 is the Pocket Fisherman of grilling, the Swiss Army knife of parking lot culinary artistry and very possibly the pinnacle of human achievement, with the obvious exceptions of various life-saving vaccines and Nair for Men. It doesn't just grill, people. It grills, fries, griddles, warms, steams, woks, boils, sautés and sears. It can blast 650 degrees at your pork loin in minutes, thanks to an infra-red heat source.

Better still, it's designed as a circle, so that it invites the gathering ‘round of fellow tailgaters, liberating the griller from his customary lonely station over by the back of the truck. "It's typical. Everybody else is drinking beer and hitting on girls. He's back there feeding people," Heineken says.
This, then, might just be the salvation the tailgater has been crying for. A meat-searing circle of life, lit with 30,000 Btu of power, able not only to render delicious homemade french fries but to bring people together in parking lot harmony. Party on, Tailgate Nation.
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Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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