Originally Published on September 29, 2022. Last Updated on February 7, 2024.
Football fans all over the country take tailgating very seriously. They swarm stadium parking lots to set up tents, portable grills, lawn chairs, folding tables, and cooler after cooler of icy libations—all sporting their team colors, of course—to get their pregame parties started.
But have you thought of hosting one from the comfort of home? You get all the perks of tailgating minus the travel, porta-potties, and crowds.
We’ve gathered some gameday tips and tricks you can use to host a fun, fumble-free celebration. Read through these seven backyard tailgate party ideas, then get ready for some football.
1. Spectator Seating
Whether you’re entertaining a crowd or just a few close friends, a comfortable viewing area makes watching the game that much better. Look for durable, easy-to-clean furniture that can handle spills, stains, and spirited fans’ repeated sitting and standing (think touchdown dances or shouting at the referee).
If you have an expansive backyard, go for a deep seating modular sectional you can reconfigure to meet partygoers’ needs—from forming a straight path to the buffet table to easy bathroom access. If you have a petite patio, set up a few folding Adirondacks and matching side tables. If you only host the occasional backyard bash, this allows for more flexibility. Once the party’s over, you can put the chairs in storage and move the tables out of the way.
2. Create a Stadium Aesthetic
Watching a football game live from the stands is an experience unlike any other, but you can get pretty close to recreating that feeling in your backyard.
- Hang strands of outdoor lights overhead to mimic stadium lights.
- Create a football-themed playlist filled with high-energy tunes and your team’s fight song.
- Get nostalgic by displaying vintage jerseys and black-and-white photos of the original stadium, retired players, and famous moments caught on camera.
- Choose decor in your team’s colors (and the opposition’s colors if you’re a house divided).
- If you have a large group coming over to watch the game, set up your viewing space like an outdoor theater. It will be like your own personal jumbotron.
3. Prep for the Weather
Football season starts in late summer and wraps up in early winter, so having go-to items on hand will keep the party going when the weather gets iffy. The time of year and your local climate will impact how you keep your guests comfortable, so try any of these tailgate setup ideas at your next party to give your guests some sunshine even on the cloudiest of days:
When It’s Hot
- Outdoor umbrellas and tents for shade.
- Swamp coolers for sweltering days.
- Retractable screens to block the wind and sun.
- Coolers that keep drinks cold and refreshing.
When It’s Cold
- Warm blankets and seat cushions when it’s chilly.
- An outdoor fire pit to light up longer nights.
- Patio heaters to keep your backyard tailgate toasty.
- Slow cookers and chafing dishes to keep food warm.
4. Don’t Skimp (and Don’t Stress) on Tailgate Food
The highlight of any tailgate is the food. But don’t let this knowledge put too much pressure on you. Make a few dishes yourself and supplement with some store-bought items, or plan a potluck-style menu. Guests always offer to bring something, so why not let them? It’s less work for you and allows your aunt to show off her famous fried chicken and your best friend to share his favorite French onion dip.
Need some tailgate food ideas? Seek inspiration from these traditions followed by die-hard football fans around the country.
- Chicago Bears fans love Da Bus’s beef sandwiches.
- Dessert is king for Penn State with grilled stickies.
- Barbecue is the rule at Kansas City Chiefs games.
- It’s all about gumbo and jambalaya for New Orleans Saints fans.
- Florida State Seminoles fans serve fried gator tail when they play their rivals, the Florida Gators.
- University of Washington fans enjoy grilled salmon at their pregame sailgates (tailgating from a boat).
- Roast hog is a highlight for Auburn University fans at the end-of-season “Stollgate.”
- Lobster is the tailgating food of choice for New England Patriots fans.
- University of Wisconsin–Madison fans love the Badgers and brats.
- Tri-tips are a tailgating favorite for Oakland Raiders fans.
5. Serve a Signature Cocktail
Water, pop, and cold beer are essential for any game-day gathering, but you can really put the “spirit” in “team spirit” with a football-themed cocktail. Here’s an HGTV article filled with tailgate recipes that any fan will love. If you love the Denver Broncos, try the Wed Wabbit Cocktail. Or there’s a Boozy Peppermint Patty Hot Cocoa to warm up any New York Giants fan.
6. Tailgate Trivia
The history of tailgating is fascinating, so give your guests something to talk about with these interesting football factoids.
According to a National Geographic article, the roots of modern-day tailgating are connected to ancient Greek and Roman fall harvest celebrations. These parties were a last hurrah of sorts before winter set in, feasts filled with music, food, and plenty to drink.
The earliest American tailgate supposedly occurred at the First Battle of Bull Run. A History.com article states that on Sunday, July 21, 1861, spectators packed picnic baskets, got into their carriages and wagons, and made a seven-hour trip from our nation’s capital to Virginia to watch the first major U.S. Civil War battle from afar.
There’s controversy over the origins of football tailgating. According to The Browns Fan’s Tailgating Guide, there are three legends:
Some believe tailgating started in 1869 at the very first college football game between Princeton and Rutgers. Fans traveled to the game in horse-drawn carriages, and before kickoff, they grilled sausages at the “tail end” of their horses.
Others say Yale University football fans started the tailgating trend. In 1904, loyal Yalies traveled by train in private railcars to see the Bulldogs play. Upon arriving at the train station, everyone was hungry, so they stocked up on provisions before heading to the stadium.
Some people credit fans of the Green Bay Packers as the inventors of tailgating. Back in 1919, Wisconsin farmers started backing their trucks up to the edge of the football field and watching games from the comfort of their lowered tailgates.
7. Break Out the Games
Offer entertaining activities your guests can play while they wait for kickoff. Cornhole, board games, or simply tossing around a football will keep the boredom at bay. Don’t forget to provide things for kids to do, such as crafts or a scavenger hunt.
What makes a good tailgate?
A good tailgate has delicious food and drinks, music, games, and comfortable seating. These are the big things everyone thinks about, but the small details make the difference between a good tailgate and a great one. Include the following items at your next tailgate to ensure you host an awesome, stress-free party.
- Blankets, hats, gloves, and portable fire pits to keep guests warm.
- Tents and fans that give family cool spots to rest.
- Power sources for all your machines—extra batteries, extension cords, charging cables, propane tanks, charcoal, or even a portable generator.
- A tailgate-specific toolbox stocked with duct tape, garbage bags, hand sanitizer, condiments, bottle openers, serving utensils, lighters, a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher, and other “just in case” items.
- Labels for all your food and drink containers.
- Plastic totes to hold dirty dishes.
What kind of food is served at a tailgate party?
The most popular foods served at a tailgate party are cooked on the grill, spooned out of a crock pot, or scooped up on chips. You can’t go wrong with the following menu items:
- Hot dogs
- Buffalo wings with blue cheese and ranch sauce
- Beer cheese dip
- Chicken nachos covered in guacamole, pico de gallo, jalapeños, and sour cream
- Chocolate chip cookies
- Bacon-wrapped jalapeños
What should you not do at a tailgate?
You should not pick tailgate recipes that keep you in the kitchen all day. Your guests came to your house to watch the game and spend time with you. And offer food that fits the climate—chili for November games in the Midwest or refreshing fruit salad at a southern Florida tailgate in late summer. If you’re a guest at a tailgate, help clean up before you leave. The host put lots of work into making the day special, so clearing away dishes, taking out the garbage, or boxing up leftovers will go a long way in easing their stress.