Leah Letterhos and her father, John Letterhos, tailgate at the State Fairgrounds. (Photo provided by Leah Letterhos)
Hot dogs, beer pong, parking lots — and homework? University of South Carolina students don’t just party before the game, they study the party before the game.
“The Culture of Tailgating, in America and Globally” is a class offered by professor Andy Gillentine, who has been researching tailgating for more than 25 years.
“For years, we ignored tailgating,” Gillentine said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
One of the major take-aways from the class? USC tailgates like no other school in the country.
The sport management class focuses on “event analysis,” such as the legal and logistical issues surrounding large events.
In this case, the 100,000 or so people who descend on Williams-Brice Stadium for a football game — 77,000 in the stadium and another 20,000 who keep tailgating outside.
In addition to regular, lecture-style class times, students go to tailgates for hands-on research projects.
Guy Thompson, a business management major at USC, this fall researched how drone footage of tailgates could be used to expand tailgating at overseas sports events.
“We were going to try and collect footage of the lots and, you know, kind of put a presentation together,” Thompson said. “We could show, like, hey, this is what tailgating looks like in America. This is kind of how you can implement some things in Europe.”
That never happened.
“We very quickly found out that they don’t let non-athletic department workers shoot drone footage during game days — or over like crowds of people at the tailgating lots.”
Instead, he shot footage of the lots when they were empty. His goal is to start a website to put the footage on, and encourage others to put their drone footage of tailgates (not necessarily USC tailgates) to have enough footage to still present to European markets.
When Thompson was assigned his project by Gillentine, he suspected Gillentine knew that he wouldn’t be able to shoot the footage.
“(Gillentine) is a very go-getter, ambitious type of person,” Thompson said. “When we set out to do the project, he gave us all something that he knew we weren’t gonna be able to achieve.”
The students had a lot of choices.
That’s because USC has become a tailgating cultural hub, showcasing what Gillentine said is “probably the most diverse tailgating setting of anywhere in the country.”
“This is as unique as I think you can get,” Gillentine said. “The other schools, they may do some things well, but they didn’t do as well as (South Carolina).”
So, what makes Columbia’s tailgate scene unique?
BAD TRAFFIC MAKES FOR A BETTER TAILGATE
There are only two roads that lead to Williams-Brice. Traffic heading to the stadium on game days can take hours.
“If you tried to go to our game an hour early, you’d never get there,” Gillentine said.
Gillentine said a pattern emerges: People come early to avoid traffic. Once there, they tailgate to pass the time until kickoff. Since they tailgate every game, they make the tailgate fun. And because the tailgate is fun, other people arrive early to join the party.
This creates a tailgate and traffic scene that often starts four hours before the game.
“If I’ve got to go early just to get there, then I’m going to go ahead and tailgate for a little while and beat the crowd,” Gillentine said.
PRIVATE PARTIES IN THE PARKING LOT
“We have so many private tailgate locations,” Gillentine said. “Those are unique, and I see those increasing.”
In private lots, parking spots are reserved before the season. They often cost more than a spot in a public lot and can come with perks such as a more intimate setting or an indoor bathroom.
Gillentine refers to private lots as a tailgater’s “own little oasis,” noting some never even enter the stadium for the game — they party from the outside.
According to Gillentine’s research, 70% to 80% of home fans in the stadium tailgate beforehand. That’s about 58,000 tailgaters with tickets.
But another 16,000 fans tailgate and never go inside the stadium. That’s about 74,000 total tailgaters.
“It’s kind of befuddling sometimes, but their No. 1 thing was socialization,” he said. “The game was secondary.”
Jonathan Spitz tailgates at the South Carolina Educational Television parking lot — a private lot next to the stadium.
“If we don’t have tickets, we’re perfectly fine just tailgating,” Spits said. “A lot of it is just for the general experience of being in Columbia, tailgating an SEC football game and things like that.”
Spits hasn’t tailgated for the past two football seasons. He said he’s busy raising his 16 month-old son. He hasn’t given up his spot, though and continues to pay the reservation fee.
“I didn’t want to lose it for once he’s older,” Spitz said, referring to his son.
Then, there’s the Fraternity Lot. The large dirt lot is popular with students, hosting between 25% to 35% of the undergraduate student body every home game, according to fraternity lot officials, who own and run the space.
The frat lot is known for its wild atmosphere and consistently appears in rankings for the top tailgate spot in the nation.
The 14 fraternities in the lot set up 40-by-20 tents equipped with their own DJ set and stage. Tailgaters by the thousands mingle between the various tents and music.
“It’s a different experience,” said USC sophomore Lucia DeFrancesco. “… (The Fraternity Lot) is very crowded. There’s a lot of people. It’s very loud.”
In an informal survey conducted by The Carolina News & Reporter of 166 USC students in sororities or living at off-campus apartments, more than half said they tailgated at the Fraternity Lot this season without going to the game. More than 10% said they didn’t go into any of the games they tailgated at this year.
Gillentine calls private tailgate lots “the new neighborhood.”
“It is filling that role that neighborhood life used to be, where we all knew everybody in our neighborhood,” Gillentine said. “We just sat out there, and you talk to everybody as they go by, right? We don’t do that anymore. … (Tailgating) fills that need for people.”
A “cockaboose” is a former railcar turned private tailgating space that can cost more than $100,000. (Photo by Leah DeFreitas)
The South Carolina State Fairgrounds is a 110-acre lot open to the public for football tailgating. Spots cost $50 to rent per game. (Photo by Leah DeFreitas)
Only two roads lead to Williams-Brice Stadium. Traffic on game days means a 10-minute drive can take more than an hour. (Photo by Leah DeFreitas)
(Data provided by Andy Gillentine)
ABOUT THE JOURNALISTS
Noah Watson is a senior sports journalism major at the University of South Carolina. He looks for the obscure side of sports, focusing on the fun. He has covered sports for the student-run Daily Gamecock and WACH FOX 57. His dream job is to make sports documentaries.
Leah De Freitas
DeFreitas is a senior journalism student at the University of South Carolina from the D.C. area. She recently produced a podcast following a biker gang boss-turned FBI informant. With law school around the corner, she gravitates toward investigation, crime and controversy. A Brazilian vegan Jew and foodie at heart, DeFreitas spends her free time recreating cultural recipes from her travels.