HASAN: London Game Presents Massive Logistical Problem

(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest logistical nightmares for any NFL team is the preparation for the London game. The goal for any operations team in preparation for the trip to England is to make the trip feel as close as possible to a normal week for every player — an impossible goal, but one every staff strives for.

I was able to talk to Joe Bussell about this process. As a former Special Events and Team Operations Manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2011 — a year the Bucs traveled to London — his role in the process allowed him to shed a lot of light on everything that went into it.

“From a football operations perspective, the goal is to make it as easy as possible for the players and coaches to transition to the London environment,” he said. “NFL teams love habitual schedules and they want to stick as closely as possible to normal operations. Traveling overseas disrupts everything — hydration, sleep, weekly practice schedules, everything. Maintaining some sense of normalcy is probably the largest obstacle.”

A few major obstacles are predictable and can be managed with a little foresight and not much difficulty, but many more of them can catch you by surprise.

The preparation begins in the offseason, where any team traveling to London has to check and double-check that every player has a passport to make them eligible for international travel. After the draft, the Vikings will have to check with all rookies on their passport status and guide them through the process of applying for one if they haven’t already.

That’s not too tough, but this is true for any player that makes the team, meaning that the undrafted free agents signed after the draft — or even partway through training camp — will have to go through the process as well.

It also presents some problems with player acquisition during the season. Any player they sign to their practice squad has an outside shot of being called up to the roster a week or two before the London game, and should have his passport ready to go, because applying for one late essentially means not having one at all.

If the Vikings want to sign a player from another team as the trip nears, they’ll have to check to see if the player can travel internationally before finalizing their decision.

There’s also the fatigue of travel and getting players on the right sleep schedule. One might think this is as easy as traveling early to London to arrive a full week before the game, but jet lag isn’t that easy.

Bussell told me that there’s a mix of priorities involved in determining when exactly to travel.

“We stayed for an entire week in London like some teams had done previously,” he explained. “While it was interesting to be in the country for that long, it felt like on Saturday the team was worn down from being there the entire week. Even with a day off in the middle of the week, it was just too long.”

It can be draining on the players being in an unfamiliar environment for long enough that the novelty wears off, but not so long that familiarity settles in. With all of that in mind, some teams travel their players relatively late in the week — Minnesota Vikings players aren’t arriving until Thursday morning (local time).

Dealing with such a short-term change in relative sleep schedule means preparing for it before the trip even starts, according to Courtney Cronin of ESPN. Players have been asked to alter their sleep schedules days before they even set foot on a plane, on the advice of sleep specialists the Vikings brought in beforehand.

While the emphasis on sleep science is somewhat new in the NFL, teams have been consulting sleep doctors for a few years in preparation for this game — the Vikings consulted a sleep specialist in 2013, for example.

It’s not just the physical location that presents challenges to players; there are massive challenges when it comes to diet.

“For diet, our nutritionist did a good job of setting the team up for success by shipping as much overseas prior to the team traveling,” Bussell told me. “The problem is that we couldn’t ship certain items like eggs or milk.

“One of the issues that we encountered was that standard food tastes different in Europe. We stayed an entire week in London, so after about three days, some of the players and coaches had enough of the London food. One night, players ended up paying a driver to deliver 50 McDonald’s cheeseburgers and fries and 20 Domino’s pizzas. When the nutritionist found out the next day, he was heated.”

Force people to eat unfamiliar food and they’ll find ways to get that familiarity back, even at the cost of a diet plan. The Vikings have experience dealing with this problem and in preparation for their 2013 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, shipped food ahead of time to maximize player comfort.

A Star Tribune article from before that game covered that effort from Chef Geji McKinney-Banks, the Vikings director of food service operations, a position she continues to hold today.

Turkey burgers, Southern seasonings, hot sauces and American ketchup all had to be packed and sent. And biscuits, one of the players’ favorite foods, were completely foreign.

“To [the British], a biscuit is a cookie,’” McKinney said. “I went to a KFC over there and asked for a two-piece and a biscuit, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I had to ship over Bisquick so we could make our biscuits from scratch.”

Once again, McKinney will be tasked with keeping the food preparations well within the players’ comfort zones. As an article in ESPN points out, she’s shipped food again and has this time secured a specific supplier for USDA beef — because the beef in London tastes different.

“We don’t want them going over there and not eating right because they aren’t used to the food,” McKinney-Banks told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert.

The hotel kitchen staff handling much of the food operations in London have been briefed on the recipes that the Vikings players are used to, though McKinney-Banks has a backup plan.

The hotel will provide a daily fresh fish, along with brown rice, and it has promised to set up a “sauté station” to prepare stir-fry daily. 

“If there is nothing you like that day, you’re always going to have stir-fry,” she said. “We used it last time, and it worked out great. That man who was doing it was worn out. There was a line on some days.”

But even transmitting recipes is difficult; they use a different system of measurement than Americans do. While McKinney-Banks might be able to deal with small measurement errors that come from converting cups to milliliters (1 cup is 238.59 milliliters, if you were curious), other aspects of a football team’s operation may not.

As Bussell pointed out to me, those different standards can cause massive headaches without proper preparation.  “We sent professional copiers to our hotels in London,” he explained, “because the coaches used both tablets and paper in binders for playbooks. Because we sent U.S. copiers, we had to send U.S. sized paper (and plenty of it) because of the conversion from standard to metric measurements meant different paper sizes. Same for laminators and sheets. Remember, it’s all about giving the coaches and players what they need so they can focus on what they need to for a win.”

And sending electrical equipment also means sending voltage converters — the United Kingdom uses a 230-volt system, while the United States uses 110 voltage power — outlet adapters, and so on. That also means that small repair parts, which are extremely local in nature, might also need to be shipped, from screws, screwdrivers and unique tools to each piece of equipment.

Sometimes, this may mean massive expense beforehand, including team-funded projects to upgrade the wiring at a hotel so it can handle the power load that an NFL team draws.

Not everything can be anticipated beforehand. Teams have police liaisons familiar with NFL teams as well as other forms of local logistical help. This isn’t too different from many other away games — teams have contacts in every NFL city to deal with emergencies. When copiers blow a fuse, for example, there needs to be a plan in place to print 3,000 pages of paper on short notice.

Teams will also plan out their routes beforehand. While road teams often travel 130 or so people to different cities around the United States, teams traveling to London may move an additional 150 for far longer. Every business they need to contact, every practice they want to conduct and each team promotional event will have routes planned out weeks in advance.

They’ll also encounter problems that can’t be solved by sending the right people or equipment, or with meticulous step-by-step travel planning. One of the most important operations for an NFL team involves its medical staff, a staff that will be incredibly restricted when traveling abroad.

As Bussell told me, “The other part that caught me off guard was how medicine and player care was handled. Team doctors are licensed to practice in the U.S. but not in another country. Even if they travel, they can’t administer medicine while in another country.

“Because of this, the NFL provides in-country physicians and trainers for each team. The shipment of medicine is also a major issue with customs. There are limits on what medicines and how much can be shipped before it has to be declared to customs. There is a lot of red tape around the medical aspects of a team traveling to another country.”

All of this work goes into maximizing environmental familiarity, which has a big impact on game outcomes. Some even theorize that familiarity — not the number of fans or unique quirks of the local stadium — drives homefield advantage.

That might explain why the Jacksonville Jaguars have had a 3-0 record in London over the past three years. They’ve played in London five times since 2007, when the NFL re-opened the London series, and though the Jaguars lost their first two games, they won their subsequent three games against teams that are typically much better than they are.

Those victories are over teams that collectively have been 19-18 outside of London, while the Jaguars have been 9-27. They beat the spread in each of those games, overachieving by a touchdown in 2015, four points in 2016 and by a whopping 40 points a month ago.

With all of this work trying to create as normal an environment in the most abnormal situation, is it worth it?

Bussell said it best: “It is if you win.”

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