Everyone knows how much fun tailgating with friends before a big game can be. Unfortunately, between setup and carting everything to the stadium and back, it can also be a lot of work.
That’s where Tailgate Guys, a fast-growing startup that organizes tailgates from start to finish, comes in.
It’s the brainchild of 34-year-old Parker Duffey, a former construction project manager who quit his job to pursue his tailgating operation full-time a decade ago after realizing the market opportunity in his football-crazed Auburn community in Alabama. From humble beginnings spent carting bags of ice to stadiums, Duffey has seen his company balloon to the point where he’s had to turn down eight-figure buyout offers.
“It was just two young dudes just getting after it,” said Duffey, reminiscing on the first year with his business partner and former building supplies salesman Michael Otwell. “We bootstrapped everything 100%.”
Despite taking out a $30,000 business loan, Duffey recalls only having to use about $5,000 of it to get his business off the ground. The duo was able to buy just enough equipment to meet the needs of its early customer base, stored everything in Otwell’s backyard, and slowly built out as needed.
Unlike the operation that sparked the business idea (Duffey met a man who was squatting and selling prime tailgating space at University of Alabama football games,) Tailgate Guys set up exclusive relationships with colleges. Its first, Auburn University, was Duffey’s alma mater and where about 55 tailgates were hosted in year one. That number has since swelled to over 400 a year at Auburn.
“That was really our twist — partnering with the schools,” Duffey said. “It really separated us from anything anyone else was doing.”
Tailgate Guys’ ambition for growth has also helped separate itself from the competition. After attracting an undisclosed investment for 25% of the company from sports investor Ben Sutton, Duffey put the funds to work by buying out the man who founded theUniversity of Alabama’s original tailgating operation, which became known as Game Day Tents, and then looked to other schools.
In 2016, Duffey grew the operation from six colleges to 16 and he recently added NFL stadiums to its list of event spaces, which totals 43 across the country. The company’s services has also grown to include full catering options and even packages with multiple satellite TVs. A standard package costs roughly $20 to $30 per person and comes with tents, tables and chairs that are set up and broken down before and after the game. But expansion has brought its own set of challenges as the company learned everyone has their own idea of what tailgating is.
Taking tailgating to the next level
“The way they tailgate at Stanford, for example, is very different. It’s much more of a hospitality event there,” said Duffey, adding that fans might show up three hours before a game compared to the eight hours of tailgating he sees at football games in the south.
The one constant, however, is what Duffey said businesses everywhere will have to adapt to: millennial tastes. It’s the reason he thinks his “Uber for tailgates” took off.
“We’re part of a generation where the athletic event somewhat becomes secondary in a lot of ways,” he said. “We’re drawn to the community aspect of things, where the event around the event is actually the draw and with ride sharing as big as it is people aren’t even driving to games anymore.”
With annual sales revenue growing five-fold over the past two years since crossing $10 million in 2016, Duffey said the company has plans to continue ramping up partnerships with other stadiums across the country while also building on existing services.
Taking a break from one of his many road trips to college stadiums around the country — this time to College Station for a Texas A&M event — Duffey paused to reflect on how far he’s come since throwing his first tailgate at Auburn nearly a decade ago amid the doubts others had about his decision to host tailgates for a living.
“I just remember having dinner with my parents and thinking about what it could be if we just added one school, and then another,” he said. “But I had no idea it was going to be like this.”
Zack Guzman is a senior writer and on-air reporter covering entrepreneurship, startups, and breaking news at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @zGuz.