Chance meeting lit fire for Tailgate Guys
|The Tailgate Guys now pitch their tents at 14 schools.
He started to walk toward Sutton, the former IMG College president, several times before retreating. Finally, his wife said, “Just go on over there.”
Duffey introduced himself and briefly told Sutton about his Auburn, Ala.-based game-day hospitality company, Tailgate Guys, which he and his business partner, Michael Otwell, started out of a spare bedroom in Duffey’s home eight years ago.
Sutton was intrigued enough by Duffey’s story that the two stayed in touch and Sutton eventually made Tailgate Guys one of his first investments through his new firm, Teall Investments.
The injection of capital sent Tailgate Guys into a sudden growth surge unlike the modest, slow-but-steady trajectory it had been on.
At the end of 2016, Tailgate Guys, which specializes in creating custom tailgate experiences at college football games, had deals with six schools. With the help of Sutton’s capital, Tailgate Guys now has 14 schools and acquired a competitor. By the time the college football season starts next month, Tailgate Guys expects to add two to four more schools.
Gross sales are expected to shoot from $7 million in 2016 to $17 million or more this year.
Roughly 750,000 to 1 million fans will visit a Tailgate Guys hospitality tent on a college campus this season, Duffey projects. The agency works with the Atlanta Falcons, bowl games and golf tournaments as well.
“Things have completely changed,” Duffey said of the alliance with Sutton. “Ben has opened doors for us in ways we couldn’t before. Now we can get into an athletic director’s office and explain what we do.”
Sutton’s Teall Investments took on an undisclosed minority share in the tailgate business about six months ago. The money was used to hire additional staff, buy supplies and acquire a competing business, Game Day Tents, which came with the rights at Alabama. Tailgate Guys now has 70 full-time employees and another 200 part-timers during the season.
At each school, Tailgate Guys creates a tent village of sorts, providing all of the necessities for pregame tailgating so that the fans simply have to show up at their spot and commence with the tailgating. Everything from ice to food and beverage, chairs and televisions can be provided, depending on what package the fan buys. Those core game-day packages range from $400 to $4,000, with the higher-end packages including larger tents, wooden floors and TVs.
The company, which the founding partners started with a $30,000 line of credit from a bank, shares revenue with the school based on a percentage of sales.
“I feel like we’re in the right place at the right time, with all of the emphasis on the fan experience,” Duffey said.
Sutton was attracted to the business, in part, because the model somewhat mirrored the multimedia rights business he founded at ISP Sports 25 years ago. He started with the rights to one school, his alma mater Wake Forest, and grew ISP to more than 50 schools before he sold to IMG in 2010 for $100 million.
Aggregating local businesses at the school level and turning them into a national business, like ISP did, is what Tailgate Guys hopes to do as well.
Sutton is staying mum on the specifics about Teall Investments for now, except to say he and his partners are looking to invest in sports and non-sports businesses. He hopes to unveil more details this fall.
In the meantime, Tailgate Guys is capitalizing on Sutton’s college contacts to grow its business. Sutton typically helps with introductions, but he’s staying out of the day-to-day operations.
|Tailgate Guys' tent village at TCU.
Tailgate Guys, which has added former Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley to its board, isn’t without competitors, although companies tend to come and go in this evolving space. Block Party Suites, which creates pop-up tailgating villages at games and concerts using shipping containers, just received a $2 million investment from Live Nation.
And GameDay Traditions utilizes tiny homes with their own kitchens and bathrooms to provide high-end tailgating.
“There are so many schools and so much potential that is untapped,” Duffey said. “There’s still a lot of runway with this business.”
|Outside Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. "There's still a lot of runway," Parker Duffey said.