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Tailgate Food by the Numbers: The Highs and Lows of Pregame Prices

How does the cost of your favorite meal compare to prices in 2000? Eater’s Consumer Plate Index takes a look at Consumer Price Index data to show how economic changes affect the cultural and monetary value of classic dishes over time. This time we discuss the tailgate party. Build and price your own below the story.

Tailgating prices through the years
Tailgating prices through the years
Anne Marie Lindemann

The history of tailgating is hard to trace. People have brought snacks, mobile picnics, and "chuckwagons" to popular events since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, according to Notre Dame anthropologists John Sherry and Tonya Bradford, who have done several studies on the topic. But the earliest documented version of "tailgating" in America is during the Civil War’s Battle of Bull Run in 1861 when families gathered with picnic baskets to watch the big fight. One of the first times football fans did this outside a stadium before a game was in 1869, at the first game between Princeton University and Rutgers. Since then, tailgating has become a way fans build community and family. And at the center of it all is food.

For serious fans, tailgating is a time-honored tradition — regardless of the weather or outdoor temperatures — where few things change. In 1869, fans outside the Princeton v. Rutgers game reportedly ate fish and sausages. Today, burgers and steak are top favorites, according to Weber Grill's GrillWatch survey. And for tailgaters on a budget, that can be problem. People who pre-game outside parking lots and stadiums could be spending 70 percent more on their celebrations than they were when they were younger (that's only counting the staples: chips, chicken, burgers, steak and beer). About 55 percent is due to inflation, and the other 15 percent has one culprit — the beloved steak.

Budgets for meals or events where beef is often a highlight, like tailgate parties, feel the impact.

It's no secret prices naturally tend to increase over time. Many things grow at a similar rate, or at the rate of inflation. Occasionally industry-specific forces or changing cultural habits can make prices grow faster, or slower, than everything else Americans buy. This is what is happening with beef.

Beef prices have skyrocketed in recent years, for reasons Consumer Plate Index explored in a look at the growing cost of the cheeseburger. To summarize: drought and weather conditions in the '90s created smaller supply in cattle; meanwhile, demand has gone up. Fewer supply and higher demand means higher prices. That means budgets for meals or events where beef is often a highlight, like tailgate parties, feel the impact.

Luckily, tailgate food is diverse and robust. Steaks and burger patties aren't the only meat thrown on the grill. Brats, wings, and ribs also share the spotlight. And that's good news for frugal football fanatics. As beef gets more expensive each year, chicken is actually cheaper these days than it was 15 years ago. A drumstick and thigh costs 40 cents today. In 2000, chicken legs were 46 cents each in today's money. Meanwhile, pork prices are relatively the same as they were a decade ago. That means when given the choice, a chicken or pork sausage could be a better route, economically, than beef brats — and healthier, too.

But the tailgating party doesn't have to be just wings and boneless, skinless chicken breast. As it turns out, chips, and drinks, including beer, don't cost much more than they did 15 years ago, either, even when inflation is considered. And typical veggie platter items like broccoli, tomatoes, and carrots are becoming cheaper than they were years ago. Pro-tip: It may be a good idea to ramp up the tailgate's starting lineup with more nachos, dips, veggies and beer.

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