The expanded effort of the NFL to drum up an international market has led to the fairly popular International Series, which now includes two games a year—the Pittsburgh Steelers "at" the Minnesota Vikings this Sunday and the San Francisco 49ers "at" the Jacksonville Jaguars the very next month.
The Vikings will likely have left by the time you read this, and they'll be staying at the Grove in Hertfordshire, a luxury conference hotel that also has the facilities to host the Vikings' practices as well. The choice of hotel is naturally a serious and deliberate choice by any football organization, and the Vikings took a cue from the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers, who have both stayed there previously. The Vikings have the opportunity to play on fields set up by the same NFL staff that oversees playoff and Super Bowl games.
Preparing for the London trip is one of the biggest organizational nightmares that an operations manager must go through. Luther Hippe, the teams' Director of Operations-Team Travel, as well as other Operations Directors Chad Lundeen and Paul Martin have had their hands full since before training camp:
By mid-September, [equipment manager Dennis] Ryan had shipped 50 boxes of stuff, including the team's preferred coffee and players' favorite socks. "I'm more familiar now with the language they speak,'' Ryan said with a laugh. "We've been planning and organizing since late June. We want players and coaches to have all the comforts of home.''
We'll get a closer look once the Discovery Channel releases its "NFL in Season" documentary (from the same producers of Hard Knocks) at what the Vikings and the three other teams will be doing in their preparation for London. For now, we'll go with what we can gather from interviews and other snippets.
Joe Bussell, former Director of Operations for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, provided excellent detail in describing what goes into preparing for the London game in an interview with Josh Katzowitz and there's no mistaking the fact that preparation is extensive.
Inevitably, preparation goes awry, and teams need to have multiple backup plans. One of the biggest goals of the Operations staff is to make sure that the week in London feels as much like a normal NFL week as possible, a monumental task.
To that end, teams will ship out copiers, laminators and other equipment months in advance, and may be stymied by the geographic idiosyncrasies of the United Kingdom. For example, it is easy to forget that most of the UK uses a different plug standard than the United States (or the rest of Europe), so adapters must be shipped or bought en masse on site. Once that is accomplished, teams have to ensure that they have all working parts.
That is, they need to make sure they ship their own paper (they have a different paper size in Europe, because of the metric system), screws (ditto), tools and accessories. Printer parts may need to be purchased in case of a breakdown and shipped well before the team lands in the UK—and that's true for every type of equipment that may have moving parts.
They'll do this with fewer resources than in most situations. NFL teams have contacts in nearly every NFL city, or will use the contacts provided by the host team in order to get what they need. These resources could span from the totally expected (a familiar police liaison with experience in organizing escorts for NFL teams) to contacts for very particular situations—if a player has a specific medical request, for example, there needs to be an expedited system for fulfilling it without too much hassle, which may be a lot to ask for without someone with specific knowledge of the situation.
These could sometimes mean meeting emergency requests (3000 new copies may be difficult to produce overnight if a fuse blows in the hotel that is hosting all of your copying needs) or oddball game rituals (if a player drinks root beer before every game, the team better have thought of it. It's nearly impossible to find in Europe).
When Tampa Bay did its stint in London, they stayed at two different hotels in order to meet some of these needs and even redid the wiring in one of the hotels to install additional breakers and other necessities to make sure the hotel could keep up with the work demands.
Maintaining familiarity in an unfamiliar place is an impossible challenge, but one that the Operations staff must strive to meet. That means making sure that the hotel has conference rooms reserved for every positional unit so that they can hold team meetings, easy access to an auditorium and relatively free movement of big bodies.
Road teams will typically move 125 to 140 people to one location for the night, but adding an additional 150 people and six nights to the stay can be a nightmare. The Operations staff needs to make sure that routes are planned to known locations each week for all the business that needs to get done for nearly all 280 or so people.
More than that, smart teams will consult with sleep experts and accomplished notables in behavioral psychology in order to ensure that the week of the game coordinates well with player psychology and sleep rhythms. In addition, they will need to make sure that the aftermath of the game doesn't lead to ruined sleep schedules for the rest of the season. Northwestern University knows how much it can help with winning football games.
The Vikings are one of these smart teams and they know that the differences in food and sleep can have a massive impact:
To that end, the team had a sleep specialist from the Mayo Clinic speak to players about adapting to the six-hour time difference. Geji McKinney, the Vikings' director of food service operations, also will oversee meal preparation to ensure the players are served the foods they need and want.
The hotel restaurant will be turned over to the Vikings for their exclusive use during their stay. McKinney visited the kitchen, sent recipes to the chefs and shipped some items she couldn't find in London. 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. ''
Why is this familiarity important?
The Vikings are losing home field advantage by playing in London, at least theoretically. I'll write more about this later, but it seems fairly intuitive that the Vikings won't be able to take advantage of whatever the cause of home field advantage is by playing in a city they've never played in before (aside from a 1983 preseason game) in front of a fanbase that is likely full of neutrals instead of homers.
But the primary causes theorized by Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats and the Washington Post are familiarity and territoriality:
The strongest theory of the cause of home advantage is environmental familiarity. It's not just the nooks and crannies of an unusual baseball park or a giant video screen hovering above the field. It's everything. It's the slight anxiety and uncertainty everyone feels in an unfamiliar place. The strongest clue that environmental familiarity is at work is that as players become more familiar with their environment, home advantage decreases. Division opponents, who play twice per season, show a lower home win percentage than other opponents. And NFL home advantage decreases as a game progresses. Home teams outscore visitors most in the first quarter and less in each subsequent quarter until home advantage disappears in overtime.
Studies of hockey and soccer players at home showed heightened pre-game levels of testosterone, the hormone most associated with aggression. These findings corroborate a line of research that shows heightened territorial behavior in a wide range of competition. In a way, we're not too different from our fellow mammals that continuously mark and guard their territory.
Athletes are notoriously superstitious about routine, and in a game of inches, being comfortable could be the difference between having the focus to see a key alert on a go route and falling for the fake on the dig.
They will make sure the Vikings are the "favored" team with productions designed to sway fans at Wembley Stadium with the history of the Vikings and a decked out atmosphere full of purple and gold, but it won't be perfect. They've even made sure that the lounge has televisions with American television stations on it.
There's a lot we don't know about what helps teams win home games, but the Vikings—like any other team—won't take anything for granted. And it's a massive undertaking.