Tottenham Hotspur Stadium will complete its second round of NFL games on Sunday when the Jacksonville Jaguars host the Miami Dolphins, with the American football league still feeling there is potential it can yet unlock in terms of the fan experience options on tap at the venue.

Sunday’s opening match of the 2021 London Games saw the Atlanta Falcons defeat the New York Jets 27-20 in front of a crowd of 60,589, as the NFL returned to Tottenham after an enforced one-year absence due to COVID-19.

A crowd of 60,463 turned out on October 6, 2019 as Tottenham Hotspur Stadium staged its first NFL game, with the then Oakland Raiders edging out the Chicago Bears 24-21. The game formed part of a double-header of fixtures with the Carolina Panthers subsequently defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-26 the following Sunday.

However, the world was soon bracing itself for the impact of COVID-19 and in May 2020 the NFL confirmed that it would schedule all games in the United States that year, meaning that no fixtures were played at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium or Wembley Stadium as originally planned.

This means that the League has come into this year’s games at Tottenham following a two-year gap since its last outing at the stadium, and as NFL head of game operations, Matt Joyce, points out, also with little lead-in time before its first experience at the venue.

“The stadium itself had only been open for five or six games (in 2019) so it was a very steep learning curve for both ourselves and Tottenham,” Joyce told TheStadiumBusiness.com. “It’s very much a collaborative approach to events with all the stadiums that we work with in the UK.

“They are very much experts in their field at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and have got into a rhythm since August with fans being back.

“Tottenham are really supportive and in control. They run the operations as it would be for a Tottenham game, but there are four or five of us that are in there running the NFL components and collaborating with them on how the event should operate.

“I think we’re closer now as a group than in ’19, because we know how each other work, and in a pressured environment on a gameday. Some of our vendors and partners are also involved in this process and work well with the Tottenham group, and there’s a lot of things to remember. It’s two years since we last did games.”

Trial run

Joyce explains that the two-year gap between games was eased by a trial run of the matchday experience that was conducted back in the summer.

He continues: “So making sure the field is up to spec, because we haven’t played on it for two years. We actually pulled it out in July and we all agreed that doing this and fully installing and testing it was the best course because it’s a complicated process.

“Collectively, we’ve not just turned up and done the event. We’ve done a lot of planning, and pre-planning to make sure all our technology worked. Our IT guys came in July at the same time we were doing this test to set the game up. So, setting up the coaches’ comms and the sideline technology.

“This meant we’d pretty much done a dry run before the event and I suppose this gave a lot of people confidence after such a big gap.”

Fan experience mantra

Joyce believes the NFL’s FansFirst programme is key part of stadium operations. Run under the NFL’s mission statement of providing its fans, communities and partners the “highest quality sports and entertainment in the world”, and doing so in a way that is “consistent with our values”, FansFirst is integral to the fan experience mantra.

“On the fans side, one of the things I will call out is our FansFirst programme we feel has a huge benefit in training staff in an NFL way of doing things as a customer journey piece,” Joyce says. “FansFirst we continued to do during lockdown, but we really stepped up that process because our fans are really different from English soccer fans.

“We have people meeting every member of staff and welcoming them. We have welcome messaging across the board. We do training on the values of the NFL, and the customer service values that we want, and we also recognise staff on the day so good customer service is reinforced.

“So, staff love coming to work our games because we’re invested to ensure they’re having fun as much as the fans do in the crowd.”

Customised design

Premier League football club Tottenham Hotspur holds a 10-year deal with the NFL to play a minimum of two games per season at its new ground.

The first purpose-built NFL stadium outside America, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium features a retractable grass field with an artificial NFL pitch underneath, as well as other customised designs for the League including a dedicated entrance, purpose-built dressing rooms and specialist medical and media facilities.

The Spurs Shop at the Tottenham Experience also has a dedicated NFL section with merchandise on sale all year round. In terms of the stadium’s technical and technology capabilities, Joyce admits there is still room to do more in terms of the NFL gameday experience.

He says: “I certainly think we push the stadium from a technology point of view. We use every screen, we use all the audio, we had someone sing the national anthem up on the roof by the cockerel on Sunday.

“Every time we look to try and push the boundaries. I think the great thing with Tottenham as a stadium is there’s loads more we could do. As an organisation, we slowly progress and adapt, and make sound decisions on the operations and what we should do.

“But the stadium is fantastic. The speaker system is state of the art. We specced it out so it was more like an NFL stadium, like in comparison to Kansas City (GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium) and some of the other stadiums in the US.

“So, we can do more on the sound stuff. The technology around the bowl, all the screens, there’s so much more you can do. We’re looking at learnings from the last game to this game. Looking at how we can increase the comms, increase the PA so we can get people moving around the building.

“Our challenge, probably not so much for Tottenham, is that our fans come down for one or two games per year. So, you have to treat it like it’s the first time that everybody has come to the stadium, and therefore with that technology, positioning is so important.

“The food offering – what are we putting on to make it an authentic NFL experience on the concourses. We had queues at the bars. We had queues this week, we had queues in ’19, and every time we do it we look at different approaches to pre-pouring or other technologies to make the fan experience as good as it can be.”

Flexibility

And with COVID-19 an ever-present threat, flexibility was key in the preparations for the games, as Joyce explains: “It definitely was a challenge. A challenge in the ever-moving landscape so we had to remain very flexible, especially close to the game.

“If you look at the last two to three weeks before the game, some of the travel conditions changing, the vaccination travel policy changed, but I think we got to a point, probably a month out from the game, where we had a very strong testing partner and had a full programme worked out for absolutely everybody.

“Obviously as the Government changed the process, we retracted back to whatever we needed to fit towards that. We had some great flexibility from our partners, great communications into DCMS, Public Health England, who were advising us on a regular basis on when things were potentially coming up and how it might impact us.

“We’re part of the sport exemption list so the NFL has the ability to travel in and compete. That was our backdrop, very similar to the (UEFA) Euros where athletes were able to travel in and compete for a very short period of time.

“We shortened some of the stays of our teams so from a team operations perspective they’re flying in later. It’s like our short stay, but some teams prefer to come to London and stay from Tuesday through to Sunday rather than the shorter trip.

“The planning for that side of thing was helped by really good communication with all those government agencies and through the selection of a good testing partner who had been through it with other sporting events and could advise us on the parameters of what we needed to do and put us in a really good position.”

COVID planning

Joyce was also able to fall back on experience working on the team that successfully helped deliver this year’s Super Bowl. While the NFL initially announced that it was planning for 22,000 fans to be in attendance at Super Bowl LV, including around 7,500 vaccinated health care workers, the final attendance on February 7 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa stood at 24,835.

Joyce added: “I was also part of the Super Bowl Infection Control Team that developed the plan for the Super Bowl back in February. Two or three of my team worked on that so we had some good experience of that in the US where we were very much in lockdown, isolated people away, and we could use that coming into our games to make sure they were protected, understood the tiering, the red zones to keep the players safe.

“We still have COVID protocols in place. We’re asking our staff to wear masks; we’re isolating the team to the field and the locker rooms to keep the players safe and ensure our game can continue through the year.

“It’s important we keep these boundaries in the current climate.”

Images: NFL UK