Opening Letters

Party in the Back

I can’t imagine life, let alone sports, without tailgating

Trevor Kupfer, illustrated by Catlin Felix Kramka |

The Brewers are still playing in October. The Badgers are on track for the national title game. And the Packers are on the road to repeat. For most people, it’s a darn good year to be a local sports fan. But, for me, I rarely measure a good year in fandom by the number of wins, playoff appearances, or titles. 

Nope. I count things like the number of high fives from complete strangers in bars, because watching The Crew at The Mousetrap or The Pack at Court’N House brings about instant camaraderie. If you haven’t experienced this, you’re going to the wrong places or rooting for the wrong teams. I implore you to change, because there’s not much better than getting a hug from an old lady because The Packers just returned a punt and she can’t wait for her free Jell-O shot.

Or the far more important number at the end of a season: the number of tailgates. I’ve always been a fan of Wisconsin sports, but I shudder to think how I’d feel if tailgating wasn’t always associated with the games. For me, that’s not “half the fun of going” (as some might say), but “somewhere between 90 and 99 percent of the fun of going.” 

Tailgating experiences, ingrained in me since I was a child, shaped my entire experience of “sports.” And today, I continue to enjoy tailgating as a culture and artform unto itself. It has the warm-and-fuzzy power of a holiday dinner with family, with the culinary potential of Iron Chef, and the drinking game-invention creativity of Minute To Win It, all wrapped in one. 

It’s a well-known and -documented fact* that tailgating is a regional thing. And in Wisconsin, it’s an institution. And why not? It’s a simple concept in both theory and execution. Call up friends and family. Track down the biggest cooler you can find (or fit in your car). Grab a grill. Pick up charcoal, brats, burgers, beverages, and whatever else ya fancy. And don’t forget to pack games (anything from involved activities like beer pong to simple pleasures like a ball to toss around). Then drive there, set up, turn on the radio, and get your gameface on.

* So much so that I’m not even gonna look it up to prove it to you.

2003 was a particularly good sports year, for me. Sure the Brewers finished an excruciating 68-94, but I went to more than 30 games. The point wasn’t to watch us win, but the experience itself.** In fact, some of those games we never made it inside the park for. It sounds crazy to a non-Sconnie, I know. But find one and I bet they’re not surprised.***

Now that I live in Eau Claire, I don’t make it to many Brewers games anymore. But that doesn’t mean every year since has been bad. True fans know to improvise. So instead, I tailgate at Express games. Or in friends’ garages with a TV outside. Or on my front lawn with a radio. Who says tailgating has to be in the parking lot of a sports arena?

I know plenty of people who have tailgated before movie openings. That’s awesome … but I got one better. Some friends of mine started the annual “Sunday Funday,” where we set aside one Sunday in summer to go to Milwaukee County Zoo. They park the furthest away from the entrance we can, and start tailgating. That’s right; we bring a quarter-barrel of beer to the zoo – along with kites, sidewalk chalk, four-square, and Shark Bites. Then, when the barrel’s gone, we go in.****

As the amount of warm weather comes to a close, I’m realizing how few tailgates I got in this year. So I’m trying to make on-the-fly plans to fit at least one more in. Sure I’ll probably do one for a Badger game down in Madison, but I want more ways to do it locally.

I’m not a student, so tailgating before a school day at Memorial would be weird. I’m not a member of a church, so tailgating before a 10am service is likewise awkward. If I had a baby on the way, tailgating in the hospital parking lot before the birth would be pretty sweet. But I don’t, so yet another good idea squandered. 

Wait, I got it! Before the next bout of the Chippewa Valley Roller Girls! Now there’s an idea. Tell your friends. We gotta make this a tradition.

** Some of the best experiences are against Minnesota, since they don’t have the opportunity to tailgate at Target Field or the Metrodome, so they come to us, raring to go.
*** Though Miller Park now has a rule that you can’t tailgate the whole game anymore.
**** It’s not the drunk-and-obnoxious-in-front-of-kids that you may imagine; a quarter-barrel isn’t much in a big group.