The arrival of the college football season is accompanied by a communal loosening of belts as fans around the U.S. prepare to devour copious amounts (and types) of food and drink in the leadup to kickoff. If football is indeed America’s sport, the tailgate is its market square, a time for many to numb the senses before shuffling into the bleachers. The contemporary, corporatized iterations feature white tents, sprawling parties and expensive invoices, but its roots are more than a century deep and were built around community building for a broad cross section of society. Even the worst team in the country likely has some alumni downing liquor from an ice luge outside the stadium.
A football tailgate is as sacred as it is singular, perhaps the only moment of the day where camaraderie is prioritized over competition1 and a keg stand can draw political support. But that doesn’t mean everyone wants to stuff their face with the same foods, nor does everyone have the same idea of what elements are most essential to curate the perfect tailgate atmosphere.
Like our previous explorations of the Thanksgiving meal and the coveted wedding playlist, FiveThirtyEight sought to identify the optimal tailgate spread and setup. To do so, we relied on a brand-compliant scientific approach: this survey of 5,000 respondents from OnePoll on behalf of Hormel Foods. The survey took into account responses from all 50 states and generated acute insights into the literal belly of the sport.
Predictably, the pursuit of America’s favorite tailgate food devolved into a meat advertisement. Burgers (66 percent) and hot dogs (56 percent), the two leading items, each earned at least 53 percent of top-three votes across five regions.2 Chips (52 percent) and pulled pork barbecue (26 percent) made valiant efforts for the top spot, but the former was no doubt hindered by standing alone in the absence of dip, which ranked fifth-most popular (20 percent) by itself.
|Food||% of Responses||Food||% of Responses|
|Hot dogs||56.4||Veggie burgers||30.5|
|Pulled pork BBQ||26.1||Cake||23.9|
|Pasta salads||11.9||Pasta meals||19.7|
|Ice cream/popsicles||4.8||Fruit/veggie tray||12.4|
At the other end of the spectrum, ice cream and popsicles (41 percent) and veggie burgers (31 percent) were considered the worst tailgate foods by a plurality of responders.3 Breaking down the disliked foods through a regional lens, cake (29 percent) and pie (28 percent) were cast aside most by those from the Northeast, while those from the Southeast opted against salads (27 percent) and pasta meals (24 percent).
When building the perfect tailgate, drink variation was widely considered the most important element (82 percent), ahead of having team-branded clothing (74 percent), a grill (69 percent) and the use of a tent or shaded area (62 percent). Climate factored heavily into these decisions: At least 68 percent of respondents from both the Southeast and Southwest earmarked a tent or shaded area as the most important variable, likely due to the not-uncommon risk of heat stroke or heat-related illnesses reported in area stadium parking lots.
|Element||% of Responses||Activity||% of Responses|
|A variety of drinks||82.0%||Socializing with other fans||71.0%|
|Clothing in team colors||73.5||Listening to music||69.4|
|A grill||68.9||Taking photos||61.0|
|A tent/shady area||62.4||Showing your team spirit||60.2|
|Shelf stable snacks||54.4||Playing games||48.5|
|Cold dishes||49.3||Watching pregame show||37.5|
Socialization (71 percent) and music (69 percent) were considered the two best non-food-related activities at the modern-day tailgate, with photos (61 percent) and team spirit demonstrations (60 percent) also garnering more than 50 percent of the vote. Those from the Southeast — where it just means more — were far more invested in pregame TV coverage (42 percent) than any other region, while fans from the Midwest were more focused on playing games (52 percent).
A great tailgate experience can also depend on inviting the right number of people. With nearly 50 percent of the vote for ideal party size, resounding support was given for a five-to-10 person tailgate. Support cratered once the tailgate group exceeded 20 participants; a tent can only cover so many people, after all.
|Person||% of Responses||No. of People||% of Responses|
|Sibling||24.1||Fewer than 5 people||10.7|
|Cousin||17.0||More than 25 people||4.1|
With families divided by a variety of types in the survey, “friends” were considered most likely to arrive at the tailgate first, with 56 percent of the vote, followed by the respondents themselves at 42 percent. (“Grandma” earned just 3 percent of the vote.) This reaffirms our previous finding and conventional wisdom that nobody wants to arrive first to the party.
Mostly, these results have focused on America’s collective opinion about tailgate norms. But if a tailgate is a tacit thread of unification for college football fans across the nation, it’s remarkable how much they can vary by where you are in the country. The cuisine offered in Missoula, Montana, for instance, might look nothing like what is on the game-day menu in Miami. While this survey failed to capture each region’s hyper-specific specialties — jambalaya and powdered sugar beignets in Baton Rouge, Sonoran hot dogs in Tempe — it provided striking results about which region preferred (or turned up its nose at) certain foods compared to the rest of the country.
|Region||Food||vs Avg.||Region||Food||vs Avg.|
|Southeast||Pulled pork BBQ||+5.4||Southwest||Pasta salads||-6.3|
|Midwest||Chips||+4.3||Northeast||Pulled pork BBQ||-4.1|
|Southwest||Hot dogs||+3.6||Southeast||Pasta salads||-3.4|
|Southwest||Pulled pork BBQ||+1.7||Southeast||Salad||-1.7|
Take the Northeast, which liked pasta salad at a rate 6 percentage points higher than the U.S. average, or the Southeast, which preferred pulled pork BBQ (plus-5 percentage points). Conversely, the Northeast chose chips at a rate 8 percentage points below the U.S. average, while the Southwest kindly excused itself from pasta salad, favoring it at a rate 6 percentage points lower.
Those gaps against the national average are even wider on a state-by-state basis. Compared to the U.S. overall, Maine tailgaters were far higher on pasta salad (plus-22.1 percent) than any state was relative to the average for any food type, edging out Tennessee’s affinity for pulled pork BBQ (plus-21.9 percent). On the flip side, no state was less interested in an item relative to the national average like Maryland was with chips (minus-18 percent).
|State||Food||vs Avg.||State||Food||vs Avg.|
|Tennessee||Pulled pork BBQ||+21.9||North Dakota||Hotdogs||-13.4|
|West Virginia||Hotdogs||+12.6||New York||Chips||-12.7|
|Wisconsin||Burgers||+11.1||Connecticut||Pulled pork BBQ||-11.1|
|Oklahoma||Pulled pork BBQ||+10.9||Vermont||Pulled pork BBQ||-11.1|
|North Dakota||Nothing in particular||+10.5||Idaho||Hotdogs||-10.4|
For some game-day revelers, the scoreboard and the action that impacts it is the central draw. For others, halftime is game time. But for others still, the pregame spread is the primary entree — an excuse to break bread with the opposition, impress friends and family and at the very least one-up the tented offerings of the adjacent stall. Each region has its own cuisine and beverage preferences, but staples emerge in every parking lot and on every campus. From the crock pot to the grill, meat reigns supreme in the tailgate diet. Whatever your meal and team preference, pull out your lawn chair, snag a red solo cup and enjoy the rest of the college football season in style.
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