The College Football Experience with Saturday Down South
From New Orleans to the beaches of Hawaii, there’s an incredible experience waiting for every college football fan this bowl season. Get your game face on as we tackle everything from tailgating to bucket list bowl games with Connor O’Gara, Senior Columnist at Saturday Down South.
Adam Francis: You’d be forgiven if you thought that was a crowd singing along to a Tom Petty concert. It’s actually the soundtrack to an amazing sports experience that one of today’s guests on Out Travel the System experienced live and that we think you should experience live too. I’m Adam Francis, Marketing Director at Expedia and your host for another sports meets travel episode of Out Travel the System.
On our last sports-themed episode we dove into the life-changing experience of attending a World Series game in person. In today’s episode we’re tackling another kind of sports travel, one that motivates people to return to their home towns, revisit their alma maters and tailgate in parking lots. That’s right, it’s college football season. As a Canadian, my experience with football was a bit different. I grew up with three downs, not four. Larger playing fields, measured in meters, not yards. And wait, did I mention the extra player? That’s why to tackle the subject of traveling to attend college football games we’ve brought in not one but two guests on this episode to help me out.
First up, Connor O’Gara. Connor is the Senior National Columnist for saturdaydownsouth.com. He’s also the co-host of the Saturday Down South podcast, which focuses on the Southeastern Conference of college football or better known as the SEC. Connor is joining us from Orlando, Florida. Joining me in the studio today, my Expedia colleague Kayla Chance, who not only happens to be a huge college football fan but also blogged about the topic for SB Nation’s Underdog Dynasty.
Big thanks to both of you for joining me today on Out Travel the System. Now, Connor, we’ll start with you. What is it about the college football experience that makes it a must travel to event?
Connor O’Gara: It’s unbelievable to witness in person when you see 90,000 people packed into a stadium, all wearing the same color and you realize, wow this is unique, this is special and until you actually see it in person, it doesn’t do it justice. I didn’t really get that experience until later in life, but I experienced that at Nebraska and seeing 90,000 people in red and watching just the passion that they have regardless of how good their team is. Nebraska has the longest sellout streak in the country, people travel far and wide to go to a place like Memorial Stadium. That was my first real exposure to it and ever since then I’ve been absolutely hooked and it’s why I’ve decided to devote my life’s work to cover this great sport.
Adam Francis: There was a certain song, a certain Tom Petty song that we heard to kick off the episode. Connor that song, what does that remind you of? What does that make you feel? Talk to us about what that song means to you.
Connor O’Gara: When I heard ‘Won’t Back Down’ from Tom Petty in between the third and the fourth quarter at that LSU vs Florida game last year, it gave me chills. I pulled out my phone, they have an open-air press box up there and I’m able to get a video of it and I saved that video on my phone. I’ll pull out that video and just get a little adrenaline rush for 30 seconds and it just totally changes my mood. I find myself wanting to go back and watch that several times throughout the year just because when else can you see 90,000 people singing a song in unison? That’s not your typical stadium song. It’s not the YMCA or something like that. It’s a song that is special to Florida and because Tom Petty’s roots are in Gainesville, you just feel the passion with something like that.
Kayla Chance: I have that shared experience with Connor. I’ve also been to a Florida game where they are singing that song, it is truly chills everywhere. It is really cool and everyone’s really into it and it is one of the best traditions in college football now and it’s a newer tradition.
Adam Francis: Don’t you feel the sense of camaraderie suddenly that’s really unique because there’s this bonding going on by just the act of singing this song and a tradition that’s being carried out? I think that’s something that is super unique about college football amongst other sports, as you mentioned.
Connor O’Gara: I think that that’s one of those things that it doesn’t matter who you’re cheering for. I get people that go into Florida and they start singing that and it’s kind of like, “Oh, this feels like it’s for the home fans,” but how do you not partake in that? Go to a place like Iowa City where they have, in my opinion, the best new tradition in college football, the Iowa wave has become a phenomenon where they wave to the kids up in the hospital who have cancer and if you haven’t seen that yet, you absolutely have to. I have never been there for that yet and that’s one thing that I really want to do because these moments where they just kind of transcends sports, and you just look around and everybody wants to do this, visiting players are doing this. I mean that’s such a unique thing and I’m so glad to see more and more teams have adopted stuff like this because yeah, I mean we have plenty of time to be bitter enemies, but in moments like that it kind of makes you realize this is special and this is something that I’m not going to forget.
Kayla Chance: My mom’s not even into college football, but when you see those videos on Facebook with the multimillion views of everyone singing Pat Green’s ‘Wave On Wave’ and they’re just singing to these kids, it literally brings tears to your eyes and you don’t even have to be a college football fan to appreciate that. It’s just so awesome how everyone is in on it.
Adam Francis: That was another thing I wanted to talk to you guys about is there’s obviously this deep-seated culture that’s ingrained in the active participation of attending these games; what would your advice be for someone who’s attending a game for the first time?
Connor O’Gara: You just sort of take it all in, you join in. Going to Baton Rouge, you’re not going to get called out by an LSU fan if you don’t know all the words to ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge,’ they just want you to be there having a good time and appreciating their tradition for what it is. Go to a place like Wisconsin where at Camp Randall Stadium at the end of the third quarter they all do ‘Jump Around’ and it’s one of the coolest things that I could ever imagine seeing in a stadium where I’ve been up in the press box, terrified that the press box is just going to fall down because there are so many people jumping around in the stadium. Traditions like that or the wave, they’re easy, they’re easy for anybody to join in and take part in. It’s not like it’s some exclusive thing that you need to know every movement for and I don’t think it’s really intimidating. I’m an outsider coming into this conference, coming into these venues and seeing these things for the first time and I feel like everybody just wants me to partake in them and they want to show me and if you don’t know everything or every word to say then they’re going to help you out.
Adam Francis: You talked about the passion and excitement and the live experience and I wanted to touch on one experience I think you just had where you were actually on the 50-yard line at an Auburn vs LSU game, which I think is called the Tiger Bowl; can you paint a picture for us of what that was like?
Connor O’Gara: I feel like I’ve been in some cool venues, nothing I’ve experienced is quite like that. When ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge’ by Garth Brooks comes on at Tiger Stadium it’s just unlike anything that I’ve seen before. And for LSU fans, the fact that their team is playing for potentially a national championship this year, that definitely added to what was just one of the coolest atmospheres I’ve ever seen. And being there on the 50-yard line, 20 rows up, you really felt like you got the full experience. I won’t forget that anytime soon and I’m so grateful that we got that opportunity. It is something that I had never been able to do before and from the start of the day, tailgating to the end of the day, getting to celebrate with LSU fans and experience that was just a one of a kind experience and it’s something that I would encourage every college football fan, every person who just likes live experiences, to go out and do.
Adam Francis: So you talked about tailgating, let’s talk a little bit about that. Specifically your experience at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi and how their tailgating works and maybe contrast that to some of the other experiences you’ve had because I think that’s a big piece of why people travel for these kinds of experiences.
Connor O’Gara: That’s what makes college football so special in my opinion, is showing up and being able to tailgate all day where people devote six, seven hours before the game to hang out and have a pregame party, so to speak, some of which are rowdier than others, but The Grove at Ole Miss is a special place. It is renowned for its tailgating and I didn’t realize until I got there that it is just basically a sea of people and it’s almost like a music festival where you look around and you think to yourself, ” Oh my goodness, there are tens of thousands of people here.” It doesn’t matter that Ole Miss isn’t that good of a football team because you can’t just walk down the street or go to a professional sports game and always see that, just the amount of people there. It blew me away and it was a bucket list trip for us for a reason and it definitely lived up to the hype.
Adam Francis: That experience, I think that’s one of the things that’s so fascinating to me about these college football games is you end up with more than just sort of the sports component, right? As you said, it’s almost sort of a music festival experience. Do you end up going to something like this, and obviously you’re taking in the food and some of the atmosphere, are there live bands? What else is sort of going on in that ecosystem?
Connor O’Gara: At a place like The Grove there’s not even room if you wanted to play yard games like cornhole. There’s not even room for that because there are too many people there and that’s the incredible thing about it is you socialize and you really get to know kind of the local flavor and you see all these people walking around and it’s just kind of a great thing for camaraderie to be able to experience. I was blown away with just how many people care about it. There’s not really much room to move at a place like Ole Miss, but at LSU we’re all socializing, I’m meeting people and stuff like that and I turn around and I see that there’s a wedding going on behind me. I’m like, “What in the world?” So the people that got married actually drove down all the way from Wisconsin to Baton Rouge. They drove down 1,000 miles and I talked to the happy couple afterward and the wife told me after, “Everybody says Disney World’s the happiest place on earth, no, no. LSU, Baton Rouge tailgate, this is the happiest place on earth.” So that’s what kind of a bucket list destination some of these places are.
Adam Francis: That is an incredible story. Kayla, I’m going to ask you about your experiences now, but do you have a wedding story that’s going to top that?
Kayla Chance: I don’t, but it’s so funny that you’re specifically talking about LSU because I have tailgated and been to Death Valley and Tigerland several times. Let’s just put this out there, I’m definitely not an LSU girl. I have lots of friends who love to yell, ” Go Tigers” at me all year long, but the tailgating there really is phenomenal. The food, the jambalaya, the gumbo, everything, they’re really just wanting you to enjoy it. And they will just welcome you into any tailgate really. So, depending on what kind of fan you are, keep in mind, I did go to Alabama for a time so they’re not always so kind to me, but it’s all good fun. Even if you don’t go to the game, if you’re just walking around and tailgating and bar hopping around, it’s great. You’re going to find camaraderie regardless of what colors you’re wearing that day. And Death Valley is truly the loudest stadium in America, you have to go and experience a game there.
Adam Francis: Isn’t that actually part of what makes it so much more captivating is you do end up having these two different contingents of fans cheering for their teams and sometimes immersed in the same ecosystem?
Kayla Chance: Oh, the LSU vs Alabama rivalry is a tale as long as time. Everyone will talk trash all year long, not just during game week, not just during football season. If I see an LSU guy sporting a shirt at the airport I’m for sure going to give him a Roll Tide and just say, “Hey, what’s up?” It’s just fun, that’s the type of thing I’m talking about, regardless of what school you went to or what team you’re cheering for, you find that camaraderie at airports, at restaurants, things like that. It’s just nice to have that moment where you can relate to someone and be like, “Hey, you went to a great school that I’ve been to, let’s chat about that real quick,” and just form a bond and then you go about your day.
Adam Francis: More and more I think we have this idea of, well, because TV’s become so immersive and they’ve added all these different things, I don’t need to actually physically travel to go see this game, I can watch it on TV. Can you talk to us a little bit about what you see the key differences are and why there’s nothing that beats being there live?
Connor O’Gara: It’s been a popular topic of discussion in college football because last year’s attendance was way down. I think it was it’s lowest in about 20 years or something like that and a lot of people say that TV is to blame. And because there are so many good options on TV and you can really just sit at home, what I do when I’m not traveling to a game is I can watch 16 hours of football on a given fall Saturday, and that wasn’t the case 15, 20 years ago. So that’s the difference that a lot of people are associating with this decline in stadium attendance. But at the same time, I get excited in a different sort of way for these types of weekends. Just getting to be there in person you experience moments that you’re never going to forget. When I’m looking back 30 years from now in my life and I’m looking back on these great experiences I got, I’m not going to remember that week six when all these crazy games were happening and I was able to tune into all of them because I was at home on my couch. I’m going to remember going into Tiger Stadium and being surrounded by LSU fans, singing ‘Callin’ Baton Rouge’ and being able to immerse myself in that atmosphere and being able to tell my kids, “Yeah, I was there, I was in Tiger Stadium I saw a top 10 matchup and it was unbelievable.” The opening game of the season where Tua Tagovailoa, the Alabama quarterback, is playing in his first career start just after he won a national championship. That game they opened the season against Louisville in Orlando, it was a neutral site game, everybody’s really talking all offseason about who’s going to start between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts and I got to see Tua Tagovailoa’s debut and I said after that game, “Man, I think I just witnessed something that I’m going to tell my grandkids about. I saw his first career start.” It’s one thing to watch it on TV, but when you’re there and you see it happen before your eyes and you just get to see all the angles, it’s totally different. That’s never going to go away.
Kayla Chance: Connor, you’re giving me goosebumps just talking about that because I totally want to echo everything you just said. For me, my teams Alabama or Arizona State University, they’re not super easy for me to get to living in Austin. So yes, I watch a lot of football on TV, but I look forward all season long to go to one of those games. I went to the Alabama vs Texas A&M game earlier this season and I remember just waking up and yelling at my friends, “Get up, it’s game day!” we were so excited, we had our outfits picked out weeks in advance, ready to tailgate, all my Aggie friends were so excited to take us to the bars the night before and show us all their traditions. That’s going to be the highlight of my season. Obviously, if Alabama wins a national championship, that would be another highlight, but those in-game experiences, there’s nothing like it and you truly do remember everything. Especially if you don’t get to go all the time, that’s why Bowl games are pretty special too because they are these big-time matchups that you might not get every season and because they are a neutral site, it’s a destination, it’s something to look forward to and really just a fun way to end the season.
Adam Francis: You mentioned the Bowl games, let’s talk about those specifically because this is a marquee event of the college football season. Connor, can you talk to us a little bit about why the Bowl games are sort of this amplified experience?
Connor O’Gara: It’s the dead of winter and you’re thinking to yourself, my team is 8-4 and they’re playing in a Bowl game in Tampa. Right around this time when I’m just sick of the cold, what do I want to do? I want to go down and fly to Florida and spend six days down there and get to see my team play, potentially beat another marquee quality team and end the season on a positive note. A lot of fans really love it. I mean, they really love traveling for it and I know, coming from the Midwest, that’s such an important time of year to be able to make that trip down south because they want to have that great weather, they want it to be a place where fans can say, “This is a destination, so I want to go here.” The Boca Raton Bowl, like who wouldn’t want to go to South Florida in the middle of December? That’d be an awesome place to go any time of year, especially to see your team get to play. So fans can turn it into a vacation.
Kayla Chance: I totally agree. I’m going to second that because it’s nice that the Bowl games fall around the holiday time because as you get older you’re kind of running out of things to put on your Christmas list, let’s be honest I don’t need so many material things. But tickets to a Bowl game? You bet I would love to go do that for Christmas time or just anytime in that season because it’s so fun and it’s an experience that you’re not going to forget. A lot of times you can go with your family and make a vacation out of it. These bowl games are fun destinations, who wouldn’t want to go to New Orleans and go walk around Bourbon Street and hang out for a couple of days and then end the trip with an amazing college football game?
Adam Francis: So if someone were to travel into a city for a bowl game, which cities would you say are sort of top of your list in terms of the incredible experiences?
Connor O’Gara: Number one on my bucket list, and I think a lot of college football fans would agree with this, it’s the Rose Bowl. I mean the pageantry that goes into the Rose Bowl, everything that you picture. If I could take somebody who’s never experienced college football before and say, “Here’s why you should love this sport,” I would take them to Pasadena, I would say experience a Sunday afternoon whatever day the Rose Bowl falls on, picture it here and just take everything in because it’s so picturesque, the weather is usually so nice, you have the parade beforehand. It’s a one-of-a-kind atmosphere that when we talk about the differences between being in person as opposed to watching it on TV, even on TV I get chills watching that. That’s how good of an atmosphere it looks like. So to me, I mean that’s the place that I absolutely need to get to. And then I would love to go to New Orleans as well to experience a bowl game.
Adam Francis: How about you, Kayla?
Kayla Chance: I would have to second the Rose Bowl and I’ve also never been to the Cotton Bowl. Also, who wouldn’t want to go to the Music City Bowl? That’s kind of random, but Nashville is such a fun city I feel like I would have an amazing time there at a bowl game.
Adam Francis: Listening to you guys talk about it, first of all, it’s fascinating because you can hear the passion for this coming through both of you. I was thinking about this, especially from a travel lens, you’re discovering a bit of a culture when you’re attending these games and it’s born through some of these traditions and I think that’s what makes this experience so unique. Before we go, I just want to ask both of you, give us some tips, tricks, things to consider if you’re planning to travel to take in the U.S. college football experience. Connor, do you want to start?
Connor O’Gara: Just say, “I want to experience one different place every year.” Pretty soon you’re going to have some really amazing experiences. Go for a true weekend, experience what it’s like in the town, experience what a tailgate is like. If I say nothing else on this, stay for all four quarters. People that leave at halftime, that’s a bit ridiculous. Stay for all four quarters, make sure that you’re getting every single element of what makes this place what it is and every time you leave somewhere you feel like you’ve got the best overall picture of that. Make a list and just start cranking them out one by one.
Kayla Chance: So my tips are a little bit more practical. I would say buy your tickets early on because prices usually fluctuate with how the team does. So if you really have your heart set on a certain game, get your tickets early. Also, these college towns have huge amounts of people that come during football weekends, so you really need to book ahead. Even more so I would look at vacation rentals or just homes where you could share with your friends or family because hotels will book far in advance. I know in Tuscaloosa some of those hotels around there will book a year in advance for big games. Definitely look at that and it’s also just a fun experience to be together and then be able to have your own little tailgate and getting ready together before going over.
Adam Francis: Sounds good. Thanks so much to both of you. This has been not only fascinating and enriching for a Canadian like myself to hear more about this, but I think really appreciated by our listeners, so thank you both. You can get more insight through Connor’s podcast at saturdaydownsouth.com and you can follow him on Twitter. Thanks for listening to another travel meet sports episode of Out Travel the System, brought to you by Expedia. I’m your sports and travel host, Adam Francis. A reminder to join the conversation by punting us your best football and sports travel experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can check us out on social media and find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Until next time, happy travels.