Why Tailgating Is More Than Just A Party To Hockey Fans

by Nikhil Sharma

The puck hadn't even dropped yet, but the first of many “Go Leafs Go” chants echoed throughout Maple Leafs Square outside the Air Canada Centre.

It was a crisp, frosty October evening, as the smell of greasy, calorie-dense poutine from the local food truck blossomed.

A collection of timeless sounds of hip-hop spiked pop, R&B and glam rock assembled by the live DJ, blasted through the bass-heavy speakers mounted atop the 6-foot high stage shrouded in blue and white drapery.

Drawn by the appeal of an original-six matchup, generations of fans decked in blue face paint, clown wigs and vintage jerseys with names such as Sittler, Bower and Sundin strutted below a giant welcome sign at the entrance.

Among those in the scrum was an outnumbered batch of Montreal Canadien die-hards. Bravely sporting the theme colors of a barber pole.

It's just one of the few extraordinary scenes of tailgating that has become an attraction, luring sports fans across different time zones in North America, despite team rivalries.

Among Leafs fans the discrepancy between generational fans is indicative. Grown sons grasp onto the passed down season tickets of their grandfathers, who preached expectation.

While those who have yet to catch the smell of a fresh sheet of ice in a National Hockey League arena have a renewed sense of optimism and are willing to fail to succeed.

But the divide lies greater than people connecting in moral capacity to support the common goal for the same team at an intimate sporting event like tailgating.

Training, commitment and financial proximity go hand-in-hand for a sport that's built off meritocracy.

Pricing out the fans

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In spite of the NHL spotting record revenues of $447 million in 2014-15 from sponsorship deals that resulted with an increase of 9.2 per cent, there's still no intention from the league to lower ticket prices in the near future.

Hockey still trails the National Football League and Major League Baseball, which generated $1.5 billion and $695 million in 2014, respectively, as well as the National Basketball Association's $679 million in 2013-14.

With the NHL seeing a 4.4 percent increase in its average ticket price of $62.18, attending a Leafs home game can take the pep out of the wallets of many with an average single ticket price of $113.66 per game during the 2014-15 season.

That is up 2.4 percent, and $30 more than the second-place Boston Bruins ($88-70) of most expensive in hockey, according to the Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index.

Only the New York Knicks ($129.38), New York Giants ($123.40) and New England Patriots ($122) have a higher average among the 122 professional sports teams.

Despite landing a ticket to an NFL game remains the costliest of the four major pro sports leagues with an average ticket price for a non-premium seat at $85.83 in 2015, the NHL saw their ticket prices bump up 2.3 percent more than the NFL.

Hockey tickets cost $8.20 more than the NBA, who have the second-cheapest average single admission price of $53.98 for the 2014-15 season, and $33.24 more than the MLB who have the lowest average at $28.94.

Overall, the running rate to attend a game for all 122 teams climbed 13.2 percent and sits at $57.70.

Taking a family of four to a hockey game was tagged with the largest increase of 2.7 percent, amounting to an average cost of $363.58.

It includes four non-premium season tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, and two adult-sized caps.

Fans are being priced out of watching hockey games live.

But, there is no such thing as a first-class tailgater.

Bringing Them Together

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Tailgating is a pregame tradition that accommodates those who may be unable to attend the game.

Among the dominant age group of tailgaters ranging from 25-44, 35 percent don't have tickets to attend the game.

Almost 47 percent participate in pregame gatherings up to 10 times each season, and 42 percent spend $500 or more on food and supplies per season, according to researchers of the Tailgating Institute.

It's avoided the business-orientated approach of initiating revenue streams, since admission being free to the general public.

Tailgating began during the Civil War in 1861 when commoners travelled from Washington, DC to Manassas, Virginia to watch the first Battle of the Bull Run.

Not long after, a portable kitchen powered by a wheel horse, known as the Chuck Wagon, was pioneered in Texas in 1866.

However, the true anchor of contemporary tailgating uprooted at the first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers and Princeton held on College Field in 1869, where fans and players were recognized as opponents from colors they donned of their respective teams.

Today, the century-old phenomenon has progressed into an architectural ritual, where fan satisfaction is prioritized through music, food, games and prizes, making watch parties just as fun, accessible and affordable.

Making hockey accessible


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Despite superstar calibre players, like Montreal Canadiens defenseman PK Subban and Buffalo Sabres left winger Evander Kane, ice hockey is viewed as an institution that continues to instinctively be a white sport.

There are currently 30 active minority players who have played at least one game at the professional level.

Long Island Native and Buffalo Sabres left winger, Valmore James became the first African-American player to play in the NHL during the 1981-82 season.

James was only the seventh black player in 24 seasons, and second on the Sabres roster that season, next to left winger Tony McKegney.

After a game against the Bruins, a mob of infuriated fans torched the Sabres team bus outside Boston Garden, tossing a beer bottle into the windshield, calling on James to unveil his face through racial slurs and insults.

Although not as extreme, during a preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings in 2011, Philadelphia Flyers right winger Wayne Simmonds, who is black, had a banana thrown at him from someone in the stands at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ont.

There was a time when doors of neighborhood arena's would open and kids would flock in by winter's dawn.

Now, it become a routine that needs retooling for there to be a greater cross-cultural recognition of the barriers that exist within the sport for players and fans.

Ice hockey's a very institutionalized sport, unlike baseball, basketball, tennis, or soccer. It can't be played at a park at any time of the year, unless its inside an arena.

But not every inner-city kid has the opportunity to access the financial boundaries to step onto the rink, engage with the necessary programs, and buy pricy, high-end equipment. Parents are having to make sacrifices just to provide their kids with the essential tools needed to excel in the sport.

It's more than giving a child a pair of skates and stick.

People want to be apart of the sporting culture, and families need a pathway to get started.

Hockey is no longer the sport of choice it once was, and its community is coming to grips with the fact that selling the game to people can come through pregame festivities.

The Stanley Cup Finals was the most lacking in diversity among televised sporting events with its viewership, including the NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four Tournament, Bowl Championship Series, World Series and US Open.

African American, Hispanic and Asian viewers made up just 6-13 percent of the audience per game.

With tailgating being an outlet for those to become familiar with sports, leaving the comfort of their homes and showing up the arena a few hours before the game starts holds significance to some.

It's an experience many wouldn't have otherwise had through a place of community where there are no social barriers. Many are introduced to the game for the first time.

It becomes a live forum for friends, family and fans to debate optimistic strategies and viewpoints on their team.

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Every team's home tailgate parties are created through a prideful subculture which embodies the sophistication of their respective cities.

Food is a huge part of influencing tailgating, comparable to a culinary gallery that's diversified by its rich backstory.

Boston is notorious for being a popular seafood scene, as many Bruins fans gather inside Seaside Shack for a pregame meal where lobster rolls and bay fries are known to be their signature dishes.

While Calgary Flames fans are regaled with several menu items from its tailored Tailgate Grill food truck, including a roasted New York strip loin, sautéed with onions and peppers, topped with nacho cheese, known as the Philly cheese steak "flame-style."

It can even go as far as Carolina's pitmaster, Ed Mitchell, bringing out a pig for a pregame roast prior to the All-Star game in 2011.

Hockey is undergoing an eccentric transition, and will need to embrace new standards through contemporary outreach in order for the game to progress forward.

Tailgating may be a by-product of what the sport needs to intertwine communality with its inherited past and culturally diversified setting.

Yet, its on-ice scene remains in progress.