Utah gymnastics fans tailgate before Pac-12 Championships
SALT LAKE CITY - The smell of delicious grilled chicken wafts through the thin mountain air. Cornhole bags slap against wooden boards. Children run about, clutching cookies and laughing with delight.
It's got everything you'd want in a tailgate party.
And it's all for women's gymnastics.
Before Session 2 of the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships began at the Huntsman Center, a group of devoted Utah Red Rocks fans gathered under a Block U flag and four Utes tents to celebrate all things Utah and all things gymnastics.
"It's fun, we enjoy it," said Utah season ticket holder Jeff Dart. "What better could we do than urban camping? You know, cooking outside and having great food and great friends and just hanging out."
Dart, who has even earned a nickname from Red Rocks co-head coach Megan Marsden (it's J-Dart, to you), and his family are ardent Utes fans who support every sport because they're all ways to cheer on the school as a whole.
As he mans his stainless steel grill fully clad in a red Utah chef's hat, a drum-and-feather emblazoned Utah apron and a spatula bearing the Utah logo, he and his crowd of gymnastics tailgaters embody the spirit of the competition and the pride they have in their school and in being members of the Pac-12.
"I think the tradition just grows. The fact that every year over the last five years it's been growing in attendance even though they were already leading the country is really impressive. I think the more people that hear, the more coverage it gets - I think the Pac-12 Networks helps. It makes you more invested, it's easier to follow, it all helps."
It also helps that the fans come out in droves to support their women's gymnastics team. The Huntsman Center recently broke the NCAA gymnastics attendance record when 16,019 of these fans turned up for their final home meet against Michigan. For a sport that's not typically as supported as, say, football, this was a remarkable feat. Dart credits the school with helping build up the program into the powerhouse it is today.
"[Head coach] Greg Marsden has done an incredible job studying marketing in athletics, watching football programs and basketball programs that have huge marketing budgets and learning what they're doing," Dart said. "There's always something going on...you can bring your whole family...and they're good. It's always easier to sell a good product than a bad product."
The program - and it's fans - show no signs of slowing down. A record crowd of more than 23,000 packed the Huntsman Center over two sessions Saturday, and Dart fully believes that it's just the beginning of growth for not only the Utah program, but women's gymnastics across the board. And tailgate will play a part in that.
"Tailgate and talk and be loud and energetic, and that gets me to be able to sell it to other football fans and other basketball fans. We try to treat this how we treat every other sport on campus, and that gets a lot of my casual friends to come, too," he said.
"You're not going to convince my football friends to watch dance...but if we convince them that it's another Utah sport where they can be loud and energetic and enjoy, they'll come and tailgate with us. And once they come, they'll come back."