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Research explores tailgate culture

Dan Brombach | Friday, September 14, 2012

Fans of tailgating will be excited to learn grilling burgers and socializing in crowded parking lots can accomplish far more than just building anticipation for a sporting event.

Recent research by Notre Dame marketing professor John Sherry has revealed tailgating to be a powerful tool for building community and family connections.  Sherry said tailgating is a surprisingly intimate experience, with participants sharing in the private lives of neighbors and strangers alike.

“Tailgating takes people’s domestic lives and kind of turns them inside out,” Sherry said. “If you go out and look in the fields and parking lots where it occurs, you see people’s private lives exposed to the world: their living room, their kitchen their dining room. People walking around can observe these interior lives and bond.”

Sherry said individual tailgates may not appear to be interconnected, but in fact are often part of cohesive and long-lasting social communities.

“It’s not just a bunch of private parties going on; there are communities stretching back over a hundred years, over multiple generations,” Sherry said. “There are neighborhoods of people that have been tailgating with one another practically forever.”

Sherry said tailgating offers participants the opportunity to interact with friends and family but also leads to frequent bonding among strangers, with some choosing to “adopt” neighbors and new acquaintances into their parties.

He said this willingness among Notre Dame fans to incorporate strangers into the University family is what makes Notre Dame tailgating unique.

“What strikes me about Notre Dame tailgating is the sheer number of times people talk about the activity in family terms,” Sherry said. “Fans take in rivals from other teams, invite them to tailgate and introduce them to other Notre Dame fans.  They try to share the Notre Dame experience with everyone who comes through.”

Sherry said tailgating also defies the conventional marketing perception of a brand as a passive concept; consumers play an important role in continuously shaping and defining a brand’s image. Tailgating at Notre Dame displays the reality of this formative interaction between consumers and a brand, Sherry said.

“Tailgaters are creating Notre Dame essentially; they’re rounding out the brand that the University stands for,” Sherry said. “Not just the tradition in itself that the University represents, but these hundreds of other individual traditions people are crafting that become intimately connected with what Notre Dame means.”

Sherry said he is impressed with how Notre Dame shapes the football gameday experience, creating a safe and positive atmosphere without excessive regulation. However, he also said some fans are concerned with the increasing infringement of new building construction on traditional tailgating spaces.

“The bigger the University gets, the more spaces for tailgating get cannibalized,” Sherry said. “From a tailgater’s perspective, that has been the greatest concern, the gradual loss of space to actually do it.”

Having studied Notre Dame tailgating extensively, Sherry said he is now interested in branching out to see if his findings apply well to other schools around the country.

Sherry said the lack of appreciation for the complexities of tailgating is a great example of why we should all stop and pay closer attention to the world around us.

“So much of what we do in everyday life is just participation. It’s like fish in a fish bowl; you’re not paying attention to the context of events because you’re busy living them,” he said. “When you slow down and focus on what’s actually going on with tailgating, see all the amazing behaviors and cuisines being developed, it’s truly incredible.”