While it’s obvious that COVID-19 has been successful in shutting down a majority of sports, it’s equally clear that people are developing workarounds. The latest of these came in the form of some enterprising universities managing to hold tailgate parties as all-virtual experiences.
And since some colleges have noted they’ll be taking classes entirely online next year, this might just set the bar for at least a few events.
Colleges first capitalized on the fact that while in-person events were not to be had, there was a pent-up demand for socializing and for rooting on one’s alma mater. From there, it was a short hop to use the favored platforms of Zoom and Microsoft Teams in order to facilitate the events.
Penn State Athletics held the first (known) virtual tailgate all the way back in April. Participants were encouraged to wear blue and white and to register their tailgates online. Check-ins and screenshots were encouraged, with a custom background of the stadium available. A tailgate recipe contest was held and festivities were followed by rebroadcasts of the 2016 Penn State-Ohio State football game and the 2017 matchup with Michigan. (Bonus round: Some fans were picked or the chance to have a member of the Penn State Football coaching staff, former student-athletes or the Nittany Lion mascot join in on their video conference). The event concluded with a post-game show (a special episode of the Penn State Coaches Radio Show on the Penn State Sports Network featuring head coach James Franklin and the voice of the Nittany Lions, Steve Jones. The show was available on LionVision, TuneIn, Sirius XM and on Penn State Sports Network radio affiliates).
According to Front Office Sports, the event reached more than 3 million people, garnered more than 200,000 social engagements, and #BWVirtualTailgate was a top-trending topic in Pennsylvania.
“It was a full day of events that we built around this concept, and it was super successful,” Chris Grosse, Penn State assistant athletics director for marketing, said. “I think our fans enjoyed it and enjoyed the relief and the break from everything that was going on around the country and the world. It just gave them a chance to get with their friends and remember the good times and be Penn state fans.”
But it wasn’t the only virtual tailgate, FOS noted. “Like Penn State, Texas football knew that fans were looking forward to the return of spring football. With that no longer being a possibility, Drew Martin, the Longhorns’ executive senior associate athletic director for external affairs, began noticing other college programs experimenting with virtual tailgates.”
But Texas (everything is bigger there, right?) enlarged upon the strategy employed by Penn State. Rather than being a a one-time experience, Texas developed a full-court-press social strategy known as #MyTexas. The #MyTexas initiative was the Longhorns’ renewal campaign for their football team this past season, putting the focus on their fans and season-ticket holders about their connection to Longhorns football.
The My Texas Tailgate occurred on May 1, with the all-day virtual celebration featuring Texas’ 20 varsity sports. It featured appearances from current student-athletes and head coaches from every team as well as Longhorn alumni. And fans were able to vote on their favorite Longhorns games from the 2019-2020 season for Longhorn Network to air. They also had access to the Longhorn City Limits “At Home” concert on the Longhorns’ Facebook and YouTube channels. The 90-minute show featured more than 20 artists.
The My Texas Tailgate was the latest example of the Longhorns’ social media success without live sports. From March 12 to May 11, Texas athletics’ official Twitter page had 87,859 and 77,186 engagements and likes, respectively – the most in college sports. Its interaction rate on Instagram during that stretch was a nation-best 2.8%, and it boasts the second-highest engagement rate on Facebook in the country – trailing only Ohio State.
One word: Wow.
And the trend continues to pick up followers. On May 28, in partnership with High Country Beverage/Miller-Coors and Tailgate Guys, Colorado State Athletics and its fans tailgated virtually, using an edition of "Thursday Night Classics." As with Penn State, fans were encouraged to register their tailgate in advance and participate in a variety of online activities designed to draw engagement.
While the jury is still out on whether college football (or the NFL) will return in the spring, it’s obvious the bar has been set for interactive activities that can take place in lieu of fan traditions.