Tailgating before, during and after Iowa football games is as much a part of the gameday experience as Herky, Hayden Fry and the legend of Nile Kinnick. Tailgating is to the gameday experience at Kinnick Stadium what the infield party is to the Kentucky Derby.
But has the experience changed for the worse over the years? Has the rising cost of attending a game combined with the heightened security and the impact of television made the entire gameday experience more of an inconvenience than something special that only happens seven times a year?
Long-time Iowa season ticket holder Dirk Keller has been asking himself that a lot recently. He is part of a group of season tickets holders who have tailgated at Iowa football games since the late 1970s.
“I don’t want to be portrayed as less of a Hawkeye fan because the Hawkeyes are in my heart,” said Keller, 57, who grew up in southern Illinois before attending the University of Iowa in the mid-1970s. “It’s my alma mater and that means a lot to me. It means a hell of a lot. And I embrace the tradition and all the others who have influenced me and told me what it was like in their era. That means a lot to me.
“But there is going to come a point where either I can’t afford it or don’t want to put up with the hassle. It’s just such a hassle.”
By hassle, Keller means putting up with all the rules and regulations that now exist in today’s world of heightened security and alcohol restrictions. He misses the days before 2001 when fans could leave Kinnick Stadium at halftime to visit their tailgating site and then be allowed to re-enter for the second half.
“On one hand, I don’t blame them because there are just idiots out there,” Keller said. “But for those of us who don’t want to pay $5 for a small Coke or $4 for a bottle of water, we wouldn’t mind going outside to our tailgater (spot), which is about 100 yards away and having another drink and getting a bite to eat at reasonable prices. And instead, we’re held captive in our end zone.”
Television coverage also presents a challenge to the tailgating tradition because the viewer at home has so many options, and in many cases, a high-definition television to enhance the experience.
“I had never seen Kinnick Stadium in color until I went there (for the first time),” said 56-year old Joe Wegman, who has tailgated with Keller’s clan for more than three decades. “Now today, people can have a multitude of games on TV. And so it seems regardless of age we’re starting to question, ‘Do I want to put in the effort? Do I want to have to wait to go to the bathroom and do some of those things?’ But that’s not just at Iowa.”
Keller plans to purchase at least two tickets again next season.
But Keller sees a time not so far ahead when he might not want to commit to a full season.
“Part of it is social with football,” Keller said. “And part of it is I have a 12-year old son who has to go to every game. I’ve created a monster. And so I don’t know when it’s going to happen. But it’s going to happen just because the combination of security, the flow of the game and just that it’s uncomfortable to sit there and be crammed in with so many people, with peoples’ knees in my back and my knees in other people’s backs. I can sit at home and have a beer. I can turn it off if it turns ugly or I can turn the channel.”
The challenge for UI officials is finding a balance between enforcing security and allowing fans to express themselves in a lively and crowded environment.
There was some fan backlash after UI launched its “Think Before You Drink” initiative in August 2010. But both sides agree that the situation has mellowed.
“There was a transition period, I’ll be honest with you, more so that you got frustrated when they really cracked down,” said 57-year old Scott Christophersen, who also is part of Keller’s tailgating clan. “When they were searching in coolers and going through your personal belongings and stuff like that, it was frustrating.
“But we still have fun. You have to adapt, which I have.”
UI associate athletics director Rick Klatt said while the rules and regulations have become stricter with regard to tailgating, the same problems still persist.
“I think we always had just a small minority of people that just wouldn’t do it correctly; that one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” Klatt said. “We have always had a great majority of fans who do it more responsibly. We’ve always had to deal with this small fringe. And I think that small fringe is smaller than it’s ever been before.”
The arrest numbers over the past three seasons don’t show a significant pattern. More people were transported to jail in 2012 compared to 2011 and 2010.
The number of people charged with public intoxication rose from 74 in 2011 to 118 last season. But the number of PAULA citations dropped from 80 in 2010 to 58 in 2011 before rising again slightly last season to 71.
The most noticeable change has been the decline in open-container offenses. The number of violators dropped from 418 in 2010 to 286 in 2011. That total climbed to 306 in 2012, but only 31 open-container violations have been issued so far this season after two games. That would average out to 105 offenses over seven games.
“I think the fans have really stepped up to the plate, and I think the numbers show there has been a decrease in open container (volations),” said Chuck Green, director of the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety. “I think both sides realize there is a better way to have a good time at the tailgating events. And I think we’re seeing evidence of that.”
And though it mostly goes unnoticed, Green said a majority of the interaction between fans and law enforcement during tailgating hours is positive.
“There are definitely moments where it’s fun for some of the officers,” Green said. “Some of the officers have a very good rapport with the fans. And some of the fans really like to see them. So they’ll stand there and talk to them for a bit or join in something they’re doing.”
Keller believes that the attitude of young people today, particularly college students, has changed with regard to alcohol consumption compared with when he was in college in the 1970s.
“It was a more permissible society,” Keller said of his college days. “But in the ’70s and ’80s, the goal wasn’t to get drunk as soon as you could and as hard as you could. The goal was to revel in the moment. It was just more of a group atmosphere in the ’70s and ’80s and even in the ’90s.
“But in the ’90s, something changed, and kids, especially college students, the goal became to get just as hammered as you possibly could as quick as you possibly could.”
What hasn’t changed is the university’s commitment to assuring that tailgating remains a focal point to the gameday experience, even for those who don’t attend the games. Times have changed, but the reason for tailgating never will.
“There is a sizable audience of people who don’t have game tickets who are there to enjoy the pregame activities, which other than inconvenience of congestion, we embrace that,” Klatt said. “… And all we ask is, yeah, that’s great. We want you there. We want you to experience it. It’s great for our businesses in town. It’s great for our community. It provides a fun environment for everybody. But we simply need to do it within these guidelines. And the vast majority do that. Every weekend, they tailgate. They cheer loud in the crowd. And then they tailgate a little bit afterward and then head home safely.”
Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football