The Cheapest College Towns for Tailgating

There are endless lists of what schools celebrate the biggest and best tailgates, but what campuses are the most affordable for throwing the best pre-game parties?

We singled out eight of the most critical tailgate staples like grilling meat (rib eye, ground beef, sausage and frying chicken), snack (potato chips and Coca-Cola) and drink (beer and wine), and ranked the average price of these party staples for each college town in America.

Determining the cheapest college towns for tailgating

For the purposes of this article, we ranked each metropolitan area that is home to an NCAA Football Bowl Series (formerly Division I-A) university or college representing the five Power Conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC).

Many NCAA universities reside in small towns or suburbs, and those schools were assigned to a larger market (Rutgers in New Brunswick, NJ, was moved into greater New York City and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor was moved into Detroit, for example), based on the C2ER Cost of Living Index urban area designations. This does not affect the affordability statistic, as a large percentage of weekly tailgaters travel from those larger cities.

Some of the 65 Power Five schools were consolidated into one metropolitan area (i.e., California and Stanford into the Oakland area and Duke, North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina into the Raleigh region). This leaves 57 cities representing the 65 universities.

Here are the 10 cheapest college towns for tailgating.

10. Manhattan, KS (Kansas State)

Manhattan KS

Don’t tell the folks over in Lawrence their bitter rivals in Manhattan ranked higher on this list than they did (KU is way down at No. 43). No matter the subject, there’s no survey that won’t rile up Jayhawks fans if their Wildcat foes rated better.

Twenty percent of residents of Manhattan are students, and that makes for some great Saturday afternoon tailgates in “Cat Town” outside Bill Snyder Stadium and the Vanier Complex, where purple and white tents line every corner of real estate. And in the parking lots, snacks are served out of the trunks of cars while others party it up in purple-clad school buses.

Kansas is wheat country, and you’ll find Wildcat tailgaters partaking local beef served in the finest grain breads from hamburger buns to whole wheat tortillas. And don’t forget the beer. In fact, the beer prices in Manhattan are the fourth most affordable in all of college football.

“The Little Apple” is a great place to live, having been named both one of the “Best Places in America to Retire Young” by CNN and Forbes‘ No. 1 “Best Small Place for Business and Careers.” An average one-bedroom Manhattan apartment runs $697 a month, a far cry cheaper than rentals in that other Manhattan.

9. Lexington, KY (University of Kentucky)

Lexington KY

Just off one corner of Kroger Field in Lexington are a half dozen or so tiny houses that look like small outbuildings on a Kentucky horse farm. These small cottages are actually 300 square feet of premium tailgating experience, featuring air conditioning, a kitchen with refrigerator, half-bath and three televisions (one inside, one outside and even one in the bathroom) perfect for hours of carefree pre-gaming for up to 30 guests.

You can rent one of these 1865 Clubhouses for $6,000-$8,000 for 12 hours on Kentucky game days, or snag one for a full season at the low, low price of $50,000 (sorry, a ticket to the game is extra).

For those that don’t have that kind of bluegrass to spend on a luxury tailgate, take solace in the fact that Lexington is one of the most affordable cities in the NCAA for tailgating. Burgers and fried chicken are staples of the tailgate scene at the UK, but save room for a bowl of burgoo.

This native dish is a spicy meat stew that can be made with almost any meat. While traditional protein was squirrel or opossum, today’s burgoo is often beef-based. Try it with sausage or chicken, as Lexington is among the cheapest cities in the nation for both.

While Kentucky is most certainly a basketball school, don’t sleep on the great football atmosphere in Bluegrass country. Find a one-bedroom apartment here for just $822 a month on average.

8. Norman, OK (Oklahoma)

Norman OK

Sooners fans will be happy to find out that, once again, their treasured University of Oklahoma has finished ahead of those Cowboys from up the road at Oklahoma State. Just like OU’s dominance on the football field over their intrastate rival, Norman has finished ahead of Stillwater as one of the most affordable cities in the NCAA for tailgating.

Fall Saturdays bring more than 86,000 to Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium to watch the seven-time National Champions, and the party starts long before kickoff. Early in the day, the “RUF/NEKS,” the century-old, all-male university spirit squad, starts riling up fans, waving their famous red and white paddles and kicking off “Boomer Sooner” chants.

And before you settle into your tailgate spot, take a walk through Heisman Park to see the five Sooner Heisman trophies and visit Allstate Party at the Palace, an interactive fan fest that opens three-and-a-half hours before game time and features inflatable games, live bands and the Sooner Schooner.

While the burgers, wings and ribs are in abundant supply in the adult party areas, there’s some great news for OU tailgate fans as nearby Oklahoma City comes in at No. 1 with the most affordable price for beer in all of college football. Grab yourself a brew for a home game tailgate or stock up the fridge for away games in your one-bedroom apartment that leases for an average of $676 monthly in suburban Norman.

7. Fayetteville, AR (University of Arkansas)

Fayetteville AR

The holy grail at any pre-game tailgate in Fayetteville is spotting — and even taking a (very careful) selfie with — Tusk, the University of Arkansas mascot. While UofA is known as the Razorbacks, a local name for wild feral hogs, Tusk is actually a tamed Russian boar that weighs in at nearly 400 pounds. Tusk is known to enjoy meeting fans before games, so be on the lookout.

Razorback fans need not be in the presence of Tusk to hear a hearty “Woo Pig, Sooie!” shouted from the distance. In fact, the din of the 100-year-old cheer is nearly constant among the gathered fans on Saturday afternoons.

One place you’ll be sure to hear the battle cry is Razorback Gardens in the sports complex area down the street from Razorback Stadium. The Gardens is a tree-shaded green space where fans can gather before the game to see who can “Woo Pig, Sooie!” the loudest.

But if you’re looking to party with a UofA superfan, keep an eye out for Mark Rodriguez, owner of the Hog Bus. The Hog Bus is a school bus converted into a Razorback fan party wagon, complete with a church pew where a pre-game victory prayer is offered before the game. The bus has its own satellite TV dish, retractable deck and a full kitchen.

If you see Mark, let him know he was able to stock the kitchen with some of the most affordable tailgate food in America, with the fifth least expensive steaks in college football to go along with the nation’s best prices for potato chips. Mark doesn’t live in Fayetteville, but you can for just $683 a month for an average one-bedroom.

6. Starkville, MS (Mississippi State)

Starkville MS

Just outside Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville is an unassuming front lawn with a crisscross of walkways and a smattering of trees. In the past, this spot was part of a railroad line that brought thousands of students to the Mississippi State campus from across the Magnolia State. Today, the green space is known as The Junction and is a quiet space six days a week to wander across with a cup of coffee on the way to class.

But come Saturdays in the fall, The Junction transforms into the heart of Starkville’s tailgate scene. An ocean of tents line the walkways outside the stadium, filled with Bulldogs fans covered in maroon and white reveling in food and drink and college spirit. Opening a full day before kickoff with an emphatic “Hail State,” thousands of fans converge in the spot bounded by two bronze statues of MSU’s English bulldog mascot, Bully.

However, what the Mississippi State faithful hold most dear is the tradition of the generational cowbell. Across campus on game days, the brassy roar of cowbells ring out from every corner, many handed down from alumni parent to child student and fan. Nearly every table in the Junction has one on display.

Before the “Dawg Walk” signaling time to start filling the stadium, grills and cookouts abound, filled with barbecue beef and Gulf shrimp and a cacophony of cuisine. At stores in nearby Tupelo, steak, ground beef and chicken land among the top 10 lowest prices for any city in college football, the perfect proteins to get smothered in your mama’s secret comeback sauce recipe.

After the game, make a spot on your shelf for your own cowbell in a Starkville one-bedroom apartment that will run you an average of $916 a month.

4(t). Oxford, MS (University of Mississippi)

Oxford MS

In the battle to be called the best college football tailgate in America, there’s one clear winner, and that’s the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Just ask Bleacher Report, Zagat, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and even Esurance, who all ranked Ole Miss as the Best Tailgate in College Football.

While the rivals at Mississippi State two hours to the south have their Junction, Old Miss probably has the best and most famous tailgate gathering spot in America. The Grove, a shady 10-acre sylvan green space at the center of campus, comes alive every college football weekend as more than 25,000 fans fill the lawn.

Sure, other schools fill campuses with revelers tailgating under pop-up tents, but none do it quite like Rebel supporters. In Oxford, fans show up on Saturdays in their Sunday best to dine on crab cakes served on silver platters and tiramisu laid out on linen tablecloths under flat-panel TVs and chandeliers — yes, chandeliers — hanging inside the temporary tents. Even the porta-potties are fancy, lovingly named Hotty Toddy Potties.

But this is still the SEC and this is still Mississippi, so expect plenty of the usual tailgate suspects, as well, from racks of ribs to Red Rose smoked sausages, all reasonably priced with groceries from nearby Memphis, the fifth most affordable city in the Power Five conferences.

“We may not win every game, but we never lose a party” is an idiom championed by Rebels fans. And when the “Hotty Toddy” cheers start, it’s time for the team to proceed down the “Walk of Champions” through The Grove to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and the party to roll into game time.

And for a chance to experience the best tailgate in the nation all season long, just $999 a month will snag you an average one-bedroom apartment in Oxford.

4(t). Austin, TX (University of Texas)

Austin TX

There’s an old saying at the University of Texas: “Come early, be loud, stay late, wear burnt orange.” And those are certainly words they live by in Austin.

Come early: It’s hot in Austin in the early fall. That’s why Longhorns games often start later in the day to avoid the hot, beating sun and humid Texas heat.

Be loud: Be prepared for a lot of “Hook ’em Horns” chants shouted at full volume. Just remember, every time someone starts up “Texas Fight” or “The Eyes of Texas,” drop whatever you’re doing and sing along with all the other “Longhorn-loving, orange-blooded, Sooner-hatin’ Texas fans.”

Stay Late: With the second cheapest prices among all football cities for steak, ground beef and sausage, there’s plenty of time for a tailgate cookout before and after the game. Stick around after the final whistle for a perfect tailgate dinner (but watch out for the 38th highest beer prices in the nation).

Wear burnt orange: UT is a sprawling campus, 10 times larger than the original “40 Acres” of its nickname, referring to the size of the initial College Hill site. And on game days, the campus is a virtual sea of burnt orange, one of the most distinctive uniform colors in the NCAA.

With the largest population in the top 10 by far, Austin is a lot more than UT football. Music, craft beer and contemporary art “Keep Austin Weird” year ’round. And if you want to live in one of the number one “Best Place to Live in the USA” according to U.S. News & World Report, it’s going to cost you $1,310 a month on average for a one-bedroom unit.

3. East Lansing, MI (Michigan State)

East Lansing MI

When it comes to Michigan State athletics, it’s the 10-time Final Four participant men’s basketball team that usually comes to mind. But in the fall, Spartan football fandom is as fervent as anywhere in the Upper Midwest. With three Big Ten Conference championships this decade, East Lansing is a true college football mecca.

Public alcohol consumption is completely verboten on campus in East Lansing… except on Spartan home game days. On the mornings of Michigan State home contests, as early as 7 a.m. for noon games, open container policies are temporarily lifted letting tailgate parties commence. This is crucial for partying in the city with the third-best prices for beer in college football and the eighth least costly wine, for purchase just west of town in Grand Rapids.

The party commences down along Grand River Avenue at the edge of campus with a rousing performance by the Michigan State University Drumline and continues over at Adams Field, just north of Spartan Stadium, where the MSU marching band gets the crowd going with a full band concert ahead of its legendary halftime marches.

Be aware that in 2018, tailgating was banned at the popular Munn Intramural Fields, where tailgates had been held for 40 years, due to deteriorating ground conditions. Fortunately, the party continues kitty-corner to Munn at Cherry Lane Park for just $30.

Cherry Lane is just one of the dozens of great tailgate spots around campus to get your drink and grill on, with a pulled pork sandwich in one hand and a Michigan Mule in the other. But no matter where you’re pre-gaming, be sure to be in the right position to catch the Spartan Walk as the team parades to Spartan Stadium from the Kellogg Hotel, with each player stopping to toss pennies at and rub the foot of the Sparty the Spartan Statue for good luck.

East Lansing is a great college town smack in the middle of Michigan’s “L.P.” mitten. An average one-bedroom apartment rents for $756 a month.

2. Tuscaloosa, AL (University of Alabama)

Tuscaloosa AL

Like many college campuses around the nation, the party on football game days at the University of Alabama takes place on The Quad. ‘Bama’s Quad is a gorgeous 22-acre green space in the heart of campus outside Amelia Gayle Gorgas Library. One half of The Quad is a tree-covered grove and the other is a wide-open grassy space, perfect for all types of tailgating in all sorts of Tuscaloosa weather.

RVs and pop-up tents also canvas the entire campus. And being the heart of Alabama, good old southern barbecue fills most every grill and Chinet plate. And with neighboring Birmingham offering the third most affordable steaks and fifth least expensive frying chicken in college football, there’s no excuse not to grab a second helping or — bless your heart — a third. And among serenades of “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Dixieland Delight” and “Yea Alabama!,” nary a quiet moment goes unfilled without a cry of “Roll Tide” from the masses.

Looking for something a little more … in your face? Rolling around campus, you might catch a glimpse of the Nick Saban Signature Series Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. The over-the-top van is a $200,000, nine-passenger rolling tailgate party with three TVs, a pro A/V system, a cooler, hardwood floors and massage chairs.

But make sure you’re back on The Quad before game time when UA’s Million Dollar Marching Band leads the Elephant Stomp pep rally from the steps of the library before leading a march into Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The Alabama tailgate scene has a reputation of being particularly welcoming to the opposing team’s fans, so don’t be afraid to don your visiting alma mater’s gear — unless you went to Auburn, of course. But if you want to transform yourself into a local, find a nice one-bedroom unit in town for just $820 a month.

1. Waco, TX (Baylor)

Waco TX

With the most affordable steak, ground beef and sausage and the second most affordable frying chicken — making it the No. 1 most affordable tailgate city of any college town in the entire nation — what could be better than a Saturday afternoon tailgate in Waco?

Try a sailgate. The Brazos River runs through the campus of Baylor University and flows right beside four-year-old McLane Stadium, so Bears’ fans have taken their tailgates to another level, or at least a wetter one, with sailgating.

Revelers on the river celebrate pre-game in private powerboats and runabouts, same as they would on land with RVs and vans, loaded with Ziplocs of sandwiches, coolers of beer (and the nation’s third-cheapest Coke for the driver) and oversized green-and-gold Baylor flags — and that’s just on the water.

The proximity of the river, as well as the heat of Central Texas, made this unique celebration a natural when the brand new stadium opened in 2014 to replace Floyd Casey Stadium, two-and-a-half miles away.

But if you’re looking for a more typical tailgate, the rowdy “Touchdown Alley” party starts three hours before kickoff on the turf at the old stadium, a free entry complete with other games around the nation broadcast on the venue’s giant big screen scoreboard.

And for away games and bye weeks, take a visit to Texas A&M University, just 90 minutes away in College Station. While Baylor plays in a brand new park, the Aggies’ Kyle Field, the third-largest in college football, is a century-old venue steeped in history. For a distinctive tailgate experience, don’t miss the Friday night Midnight Yell practice and pep rally.

Situated halfway between Dallas and Austin along Interstate 35, Waco is a modern, bustling college town filled with arts, culture and urban parks that has shed its infamous history “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” And you can take up residence for just $871 a month on average for a one-bedroom apartment.

Ranking every college football city

Below are the full rankings for all 57 primary cities representing the 65 Power Conference universities. While affordable Big 12 and SEC college towns place very high on the list, the large coastal cities of the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-10 schools like University of Washington (Seattle area), Rutgers (New York metro) and University of Maryland (suburban Washington D.C.), have elevated cost-of-living, greater distance from agriculture and farming regions and more complex food distribution networks, dropping them to the bottom.

RankUniversityC2ER Urban AreaSteakGround BeefSausageChickenPotato ChipsCoca-ColaBeerWineTailgating Score
1Baylor / Texas A&MWaco, TX1112631163.875
2AlabamaBirmingham, AL312205518141311.25
3Michigan StateGrand Rapids, MI13145934113812.125
4Ole MissMemphis, TN105274111028312.25
4TexasAustin, TX22213122438512.25
6Mississippi StateTupelo, MS742539464112.375
7ArkansasFayetteville, AR5102330119151014.125
8OklahomaOklahoma City, OK1116132515513515.125
9KentuckyLexington, KY282076267122115.875
10Kansas StateManhattan, KS151314484942516.5
11TennesseeKnoxville, TN12241911013312416.75
12Notre DameSouth Bend, IN4431117142262017.125
13TCUFort Worth, TX6113222728341217.875
14MichiganDetroit, MI323141436149918.625
14Oklahoma StateTulsa, OK81915231716292218.625
16PurdueLafeyette, IN3871283217181918.875
17Ohio StateColumbus, OH302824118684219.625
18Texas TechLubbock, TX16359101625451120.875
19Washington StateSpokane, WA2384020281546723.375
20North Carolina / Duke / NC StateRaleigh, NC493373734273823.625
21LouisvilleLouisville, KY34291624198174624.125
22FloridaJacksonville, FL172321162421433124.5
23IllinoisChampaign-Urbana, IL4349221547171524.875
24MissouriColumbia, MO21643423027191825.75
24West VirginiaMorgantown, WV18442621330253925.75
26ColoradoDenver, CO37382828292620426.25
26NebraskaLincoln, NE202744311329133726.75
28Arizona StatePhoenix, AZ3537853204223127.375
29NorthwesternChicago, IL41334234351252828.75
30IowaDavenport-Moline-Rock Is, IA19255041250242329.25
31VirginiaCharlottesville, VA5717633735395030.5
32SyracuseUtica-Rome, NY273446121822414730.875
33Iowa StateAmes, IA242141433936223232.25
34ClemsonGreenville, SC95031194047372632.375
35VanderbiltNashville-Murfreesboro, TN365510272131364432.5
36IndianaBloomington, IN392636523120333033.375
37ArizonaTucson, AZ494732442523351734
37AuburnAuburn-Opelika, AL265117452333324534
39LSUBaton Rouge, LA254629294345164334.5
40UCLA / USCLos Angeles-Long Beach, CA42225249335244237
41WisconsinMadison, WI53323450514922937.5
42Florida StateTallahassee, FL224335385251471437.75
43KansasKansas City, MO313651404837214038
43Virginia TechBlacksburg, VA294118353843514938
45Georgia / Georgia TechAtlanta, GA455230262232485538.75
46Wake ForestWinston-Salem, NC143945324548523638.875
47MiamiMiami-Dade, FL474238365639501640.5
48South CarolinaColumbia, SC404037185740425240.75
49UtahSalt Lake City, UT334839574641105741.375
50Boston CollegeBoston, MA463053394246405343.625
51Oregon State / OregonPortland, OR504547374938543444.25
52California / StanfordOakland, CA561556475057552745.375
52Pittsburgh / Penn StatePittsburgh, PA481854464153495445.375
54MinnesotaMinneapolis, MN525348555344303346
55MarylandWashington, D.C.515449515554534851.875
56RutgersNew York, NY545755564455575153.625
57WashingtonSeattle, WA555657545456565655.5

Methodology

We ranked college towns that feature an NCAA Football Bowl Series (formerly Division I-A) university or college representing the five Power Conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) by the urban area closest to campus. We ranked 65 universities in 57 urban areas because some urban areas included multiple schools:

  • Waco, TX: Baylor and Texas A&M
  • Raleigh, NC: North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State
  • Los Angeles, CA: USC and UCLA
  • Atlanta, GA: Georgia and Georgia Tech
  • Portland, OR: Oregon State and Oregon
  • Oakland, CA: California and Stanford
  • Pittsburgh, PA: Penn State and Pittsburgh

Average prices for tailgating come from the Council for Community and Economic Research‘s Q2 2019 Cost of Living report. We used the following specifications from the C2ER for our calculations:

  • Steak: Price per pound, rib-eye cut steak
  • Ground beef: Price per pound, lowest price, min 80%
  • Sausage: Price per pound, Jimmy Dean or Owens brand, 100% pork
  • Chicken: Price per pound
  • Potato chips: 10 oz. plain regular potato chips
  • Coca-Cola: 2-liter, excluding any deposit
  • Beer: Heineken’s, 6-pack, 12-oz. containers, excluding any deposit
  • Wine: 1.5-liter bottle, Chablis or Chenin Blanc or any white table wine

To determine the cheapest college towns for tailgating, we ranked each city by C2ER urban area closest to campus in terms of affordability for tailgating, with the cheapest being 1 and the most expensive as 57. We then added the total rankings and divided by eight to determine a final tailgating score. The college towns with the lowest tailgating score were determined to be the most affordable.

The rent information included in this article is based on September 2019 multifamily rental property inventory on Apartment Guide and Rent.com and is used for illustrative purposes only. Cities without rental prices indicate insufficient rental data in our inventory. The data contained herein do not constitute financial advice or a pricing guarantee for any apartment.

Photo by Alex Batchelor on Unsplash
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Michael HochmanMichael is a Philadelphia-based writer with a variety of interests, including music, TV, politics, travel, and sports (Fly Eagles Fly!). His background includes a decade as a programming executive in network television, six years as a marketing executive at a technology company, and time at two magazines and two advertising agencies. He also sits on the board of a non-profit law firm that assists veterans with disabilities. Michael is a proud Syracuse grad (Newhouse) who has lived in Kansas, Chicago, Saratoga and beyond.

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