As the Ravens roll back into Baltimore to kick off their 2016 regular season at home against the Buffalo Bills, many fans are anticipating the pregame activities as much as the game itself.
Just like fantasy leagues and the "Seven Nation Army" chant, tailgating goes hand-in-hand with football season. And Ravens fans have it down to a science.
"The big key is you're doing this for your guests, whoever you're catering to," said Daniel "Real Fan Dan" Granofsky, a member of Ravens Roost 18, a Glen Burnie-based group that tailgates behind Bobby's Jazz Club at West West and South Paca streets. "We do this as a benefit to members of our club and their family and friends."
The rules vary between M&T Bank Stadium lots and private property, but the goal is the same no matter where the smorgasbord of food, coolers of cold brews and cornhole are set up: Provide great hospitality, have fun with old friends and new, and get pumped to cheer on the Ravens.
We talked to some of Baltimore's tailgating veterans from Ravens Roost fan organizations across the region to get their tips on throwing pregame bashes in warm weather and cold, through winning seasons and losing. Here is some of their advice.
Organize in advance
Most experienced tailgate groups start a sign-up sheet among guests the week before a game to determine who's bringing what, and ensure they arrive with plenty of variety of food and drink.
"We don't duplicate a lot of items, or if we need to bring more things we will," said Mamie Murray, entertainment chair of Annapolis-based Ravens Roost 35.
Organizing themed events can also take a tailgate to the next level. When the Ravens played on Thanksgiving Day several years ago, Ravens Roost 65, based in Pasadena, set up a full Thanksgiving meal with seating for 50 people, founding member Tracey Despeaux said.
Murray's group has hosted elaborate pregame gatherings on holidays as well, including a Thanksgiving meal and a Christmas dinner — complete with a whole-roasted pig.
Keep your meat hot and your salads cold
"In the wintertime, it's all about hot food and keeping it hot," Granofsky said, especially when it comes to a tailgating essential: meat.
The trick during a three- or four-hour tailgate, he said, is making a fresh batch of marinade to pour over the meats — from chicken to pork to hamburgers — after they're cooked, and then place them in a covered container over low heat setting. Aluminum trays on the grill work well, he said.
Early in the football season while it's still warm, keeping certain food cold is essential not just for taste, but for safety reasons. Murray suggested bringing containers and plenty of ice to chill dishes that are supposed to remain cold.
Provide basic creature comforts: a place to keep warm (and bathrooms, if you can)
Ravens Roost 18 books a bus all day to provide a place for guests to keep warm during the colder months, Granofsky said. His tailgate may have as many as 100 guests, and folks can easily get chilly if they're outside for hours at a time.
The bus provides a place to take refuge for those guests who might not have their beer coat on.
Ravens Roost 18 usually provides a port-a-potty on its lot during tailgates, as well. (The group tailgates on a private parking lot; portable toilets are not allowed on M&T Bank Stadium lots.)
"That takes care of creature comforts," Granofsky said.
Show your spirit
Ravens Roost 65 starts every tailgate by raising a flagpole and hoisting an American flag, then rolling out purple and black tablecloths below before laying out a spread of food.
The group also has its own spirited transportation — a purple miniature bus one of the Roost members bought and decorated with Ravens gear — to take fans to and from games.
Jerseys and purple and black attire are obvious ways for fans to support their team. Face paint is optional.
Arrive early — but pace yourself
Ravens Roost 50 generally starts tailgating five hours ahead of the game, the earliest guests are allowed to enter stadium lots, roost president Alan Whatley said. But people inevitably get stuck in traffic before each game. Even during the preseason, he knew of fans who missed the first hour of the Ravens game against the Detroit Lions because of congestion on the roads.
"We call it amateur hour," Whatley said.
Tailgating in M&T Bank Stadium lots is cut off 30 minutes after the start of the game, per stadium rules, so there's only so much time to enjoy the festivities before the parking lots clear.
"We wish we could tailgate longer but we can't," Murray said.
Even if fans arrive early, there's another pitfall that can cause them to miss the game: Drinking too much too fast. Taking it slow and steady is key, Whatley said.
If fans don't get their fix before kickoff, tailgating is also permitted on stadium lots for 90 minutes after games.
Don't trash the parking lot
Be courteous and clean up before leaving your tailgate to head to the game.
"Leave the area as you found it or better," Murray said. "That's what we try to do."
In addition to trash cans, M&T Bank Stadium provides recycling bags for fans in its parking lots to dispose of their bottles, cans and cardboard, and attendants collect those bags after the tailgating ends.
Use caution with grills and other cooking equipment
First and foremost, don't leave fires unattended.
If you're grilling with charcoal, use fresh coals and self-starting bricks (lighter fluid is not permitted in stadium lots). If you're using propane, there's a 20-pound tank limit at the stadium, and the canister must be mounted to the grill.
Let your grill cool before loading it in your car — Murray said she's heard horror stories of tailgaters who put grills with hot coals in their trunks.
Be friendly: Open your tailgate to other fans (and non-fans)
Not all tailgate groups are as friendly as Ravens Roost 35, Murray said, which is part of what drew her to join the group 10 years ago.
"We welcome everybody — no matter who we're playing," Murray said. Yes, even Pittsburgh Steelers fans.
The group has hosted tailgaters from as far away as New Zealand.
"I felt the camaraderie from the very first time I came up just as a guest," Murray said.
In the Ravens Roost 50 Foundation for Families Inc. Parking Lot at the corner of West Ostend and Wicomico streets, tailgate groups from across the state rent spots from the organization, which donates proceeds to a number of local charities benefitting children and veterans.
The lot holds 500 vehicles, and between 1,500 and 2,000 people tailgate at the lot before any given home game, Whatley said.
Ravens Roost 65 sets up within that parking lot at Spot 24, surrounded by familiar faces and new ones, too.
"For the tailgaters we don't know, most of the time after a few games we know them too," Despeaux said.
If you go
The Ravens open their season Sunday against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium, 1011 Russell St. Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
• All M&T Bank Stadium lots operated by Standard Parking Plus open five hours prior to kickoff. Tailgating activities must end 30 minutes after kickoff, but tailgating is permitted to resume after the game for 90 minutes.
• Stadium gates open two hours before kickoff. Re-entry is not permitted.
• Each parking pass is good for one space in the designated lot, and must be displayed at all times. Chairs, coolers and grills and other tailgating equipment may not be placed in unoccupied spaces without an additional parking pass, or in drive aisles.
• Banned items on stadium lots include tents, umbrellas, portable toilets, auxiliary speakers and firearms.
• Guest Assist text messages can be sent to 410-324-6141.