The undefeated Carolina Panthers face the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in the season’s first night game, giving fans more hours to tailgate. That means more beer, more wings – and more spending.
Tailgating isn’t just mini-grills and beer coolers in truck beds anymore. For some, it has evolved into more elaborate affairs that can take months of planning and hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Americans spend an average of $196 per tailgate, mostly on food and beverages, according to data in a September issue of AdWeek. If a fan attends five home games a season, that figure totals $588.
And organized parties are getting bigger: Take the Roaring Riot, the now-national Panthers fan group that hosts tailgates at each home football game in Charlotte. As attendance more than doubled at the pregame parties this year from last, founder Zack Luttrell says the group now budgets about $2,000 for each party, up from around $700 for each last year.
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Upgrades for this year include hiring a DJ, building a stage, renting Porta-Johns, buying insurance, employing security guards and bartenders, and purchasing a $7,500 refrigerated keg trailer.
Those additions are on top of the six to eight kegs the group purchases from NoDa Brewing Company and the food catered from Dilworth Neighborhood Grill. The group also uses the Dilworth grill to host away game parties, which about 400 attended for the Seahawks game.
For Charlotte-based Bojangles’, tailgate exposure has always been huge. It’s hard to find a Panthers tailgate without seeing boxes of the chain’s fried chicken and biscuits. The chain even renamed its large box menu “tailgate specials” about a decade ago.
Randy Poindexter, the company’s senior vice president of marketing, has been with Bojangles’ for 25 years and says tailgating has grown for the brand every year. Bojangles’ restaurants, especially those in Charlotte, have started staffing and stocking up on game days to prepare for the crowds.
“We certainly see an increase of chicken sales on game day. Whether it’s a college game day on a Saturday or whether it’s Carolina Panthers game day on Sunday,” Poindexter said.
Charlotte tailgates are full of another chicken go-to: wings. At the popular D.D. Peckers Wing Shack, to-go orders tend to be at least twice their normal size when the Panthers are playing at home, says owner Justin Holland. People are ordering 25 to 50 wings at a minimum for tailgates, versus a “usual order” of 10 to 20. A 50-wing order costs $45 plus tax, and 100 wings is about $90.
Holland adds that he has had to bring on an extra cook or two to keep up with demand. Sunday may be even busier for the shop, given the Panthers’ 5-0 record.
“The better the Panthers play, the more people we see coming in to order wings and being interested in watching football,” Holland said.
And of course, tailgates wouldn’t be tailgates without booze. Customers can’t buy alcohol until after noon on Sundays, though, and most Panthers home games start at 1 p.m.
Brewpublik, the Charlotte beer-delivery startup that launched in January, started delivering cold craft beer to tailgates at Bank of America stadium for members who order at least a day ahead. They began stadium delivery at the North Carolina vs. South Carolina football game in September.
“One thing an organizer doesn’t want to worry about is having this big expensive fun tailgate and then ... run out (of beer),” said Charlie Mulligan, the firm’s co-founder.
Mulligan says most of Brewpublik’s orders come from big tailgate parties with larger orders. He anticipates that tailgating will provide an overall revenue boost that is akin to a 13th month of the year.
At Bulldog Beer and Wine, the Dilworth beverage store that is adding a South End location, the sales bump comes on Saturday.
The hourlong window in which customers can buy beer on Sundays is too tight before most home games, says owner Rob Johnson. He anticipates the Panthers’ upcoming Sunday and Monday night home games – they’re on “Monday Night Football” Nov. 2 – will be “crazy” for beer sales.
“The vibe is so good right now. They’re winning this year, everybody is happy and everybody who had lost a little faith is back,” Johnson said. “We’re really looking forward to getting down closer to the stadium and getting into the fiber of everything.”
Johnson’s new storefront, where he plans to host tailgates, is about half a mile from the Panthers’ stadium.
The stadium’s uptown location boosts nearby restaurants and bars – and public transportation provides a boost too.
“That facilitates people wanting to be down there longer than they would maybe at a more suburban stadium site,” said Craig Depken, a UNC Charlotte professor of economics who focuses on sports economics.
Pro football game attendance and their associated pre-parties remained robust even throughout the Great Recession of 2007-2009, Depken said, when a weaker labor market left many reluctant to spend on nonessentials.
“While other sports saw attendance drop off coming out of the Great Recession and into the recovery, the NFL has remained very strong. That translates into tailgating and what people are willing to spend on the overall experience,” Depken said.
And if you need one more measure of the growth of Panthers tailgating, consider this: Trash is up.
Last year, a total of 45 tons of waste was collected from Panthers’ tailgates, said Jake Wilson, executive director of Keep Mecklenburg Beautiful, the group that runs the recycling program in the tailgate lots. This year, the group expects 50 tons. That would be the most ever.