Autzen Can Spread the Wealth by Terminating Tailgating

Several hundred fans of the University of Tennessee Volunteers are arriving in Eugene this week to support their football team. Some of the Ducks’ die-est hard fans have issued this hue and cry to Autzen attendees: “Please behave yourselves.” Those who traveled to Knoxville in 2011 for the last game between these two teams marveled at their genteel hospitality. They’d like to return the favor.

I was in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend and I can report the same. Everyone we met throughout the weekend seemed genuinely happy to see us. All through Friday evening, Virginians were preemptively expressing sincere sorrow for the disappointing loss they were sure we’d soon suffer.

It was all in good fun, but even more in good measure. Sidewalks were swarmed. Restaurants were full. Everybody seemed to be out. Game Day festivities started on Friday — not as a warmup to Saturday, but as its own thing.

C-ville’s walking mall swelled with green and gold gawkers, as they marveled to themselves, “Is this how a pedestrian mall is supposed to work?” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello struggled to keep up with the Saturday morning crowds. Green and yellow mixed with blue and orange peaceably.

Our tour guide Aaron, dressed with a white shirt and an orange and blue striped tie, quoted Jefferson: “I have never considered a difference of opinion as cause for withdrawing from a friendship.” Still, he had a hard time explaining the garish yellow paint Jefferson chose for Monticello’s northwest sitting room. A five-year-old on the tour recognized it was Duck yellow.

The bonhomie continued to game time and beyond. But I’m not convinced it was their southern hospitality, or the University of Virginia’s fabled code of conduct. I credit their stadium policy, summed in two words and posted at every exit: “Re-entry forbidden.”

We saw tailgating parties in neighborhoods, but not in the parking lot. If we really want Autzen fans to behave themselves, that’s easier to fix than defining the width of an allowable seat cushion.

Terminating the tailgate culture would bring economic benefits to Eugene and Springfield. Autzen fans are traveling from farther distances to attend games. Arriving from greater distances translates into longer visits. Driving down from Portland to attend a game has always been a single-day venture, but driving from San Francisco or flying from Los Angeles doesn’t make sense if you’re not going to make a weekend out of it.

Removing the alcohol from the parking lots won’t remove it from their weekend. It will spread it out. The parties will move to bars, restaurants, and hotels all over the area on Friday night — all places that are better equipped to cope with the exuberance.

This change in stadium policy has been proposed before. But times are better now, on the field and in the streets.

For years, we’d get sympathetic phone calls from family and friends, acknowledging that if their team performed like the Ducks had that day, “they’d drink too.” If drinking was an escape, there was plenty to want to escape from. But now the team is not only winning, but winning in ways that others want to talk about. Slurring doesn’t help.

The biggest danger ahead is to hear our school dismissed as a football factory. We heard that last weekend. That is too shallow a view of the school, but it’s also too narrow a view of the community. We shouldn’t allow our cities to be viewed by visitors as suburbs of the Autzen parking lot.

There are great things happening all over the region right now, so forcing fans to forage for a party venue during their visit is not asking them to work very hard. It will reward those who are building elite programs of their own.

Whether we’re talking about television ratings, high school recruiting, or athletic jersey sales, we’re building a national brand. Or one is being built for and around us.

There’s no reason that reputation can’t and shouldn’t include wineries, brew pubs, farm-to-table restaurants, riverfronts, mountain scenes and ocean breezes. It’s time for those traveling here for football or any other reason to experience our western hospitality.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs