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The NFL is poised to step into the unknown this weekend when Tottenham Hotspur Stadium becomes only the third venue in the UK to host a regular-season game.
One year later than originally planned, the NFL will debut at the home of the Premier League football club when the Oakland Raiders take on the Chicago Bears on Sunday, followed by the clash between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers at the same venue on October 13.
In July 2015, Tottenham and the NFL reached an agreement for a minimum of two games per year to be played during a 10-year partnership at the new stadium, which was designed with American football games in mind, opening up new fan experience opportunities.
Speaking ahead of Sunday’s game, Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL UK, tells us: “The most important change in the fan experience is playing at Spurs, the 186th venue that the NFL will have played at.
“Playing two games at Wembley and two at Spurs you have the perfect contrast. At Wembley, you have an international stadium with all the history and heritage, but also the scale. For us, 84,500 is our capacity.
“Then you’ve got a smaller stadium experience as we groundshare with a Premier League club for the first time, with our own bespoke field, dressing rooms and team entrances. It will be a very different feel for us and 60,000 will be the capacity. It will be a mix of history and modern, state of the art, in terms of our venues this year.”
Tailor-made for NFL
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium became the first purpose-built home for the NFL in Europe when it opened its doors in April. The stadium features a retractable grass field with an artificial surface underneath that will be used for NFL games.
This innovative field adds greater flexibility in the scheduling of games, with the NFL having its own playing surface for games held at the venue. Both sports have dedicated facilities in an effort to ensure that the new stadium, designed with a focus on atmosphere, will deliver the optimum experience for both teams and fans.
The first NFL game at the stadium was originally due to be last year’s clash between the Seattle Seahawks and the Raiders, but this was eventually moved to Wembley amid the highly-publicised delays in the delivery of Spurs’ new home.
The NFL has been playing regular-season games in London since 2007 and aside from Wembley, Twickenham Stadium has been the League’s only other home, having held games in 2016 and 2017. In terms of the differences that visitors can expect from a fan experience perspective, Kirkwood says: “Until you actually play you can’t be 100% concrete on that, but if you’re playing in a smaller stadium it becomes much more intimate.
“You’ve got great technology there with four big jumbotron screens. Obviously from the team performance side of things, having our own field which is dedicated to ourselves will create a point of difference as well.
“So, with Wembley we’re really able to make a statement by being at such a historic venue. We’re able to get a lot more fans into the stadium because of the size and scale of it. At Tottenham, we’re able to have a very different, more intimate and technology-friendly type of experience.”
In between its first two games, Tottenham will also commence further engagement efforts by launching a unique NFL version of its Guided Stadium Tours. The 90-minute tour, which is the first stand-alone NFL visitor attraction outside of the USA, will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the stadium’s bespoke NFL facilities.
The first tours will commence on Monday, along with selected dates throughout October and early November with further dates to be added in due course. With the NFL now into its 13th year of regular-season London games, Kirkwood states that while the League is continuing to hone the ‘NFL in London’ product, everything it has tried from a fan experience has, in the main part, proved successful.
This learning experience will continue after the first Spurs games, with the NFL to continue its policy of interviewing 2,500 fans post-event to garner their views on what worked and the areas it needs to address.
Looking back on the games held since 2007, Kirkwood says: “I think we’ve proven that we can put multiple games on and that fan demand satisfies those. To a certain extent it’s not match-up contingent either. With two new teams coming over this year, we’re up to 31 out of the 32 teams that have been over to the UK and played. So, we have all these advocates in the US now, who have had first-hand experience of being here, which is great.”
Kirkwood did note that there will be one distinctly different part of the Tottenham NFL experience. Tailgate events, a traditional part of the NFL gameday experience in the US where fans gather outside the stadium hours before kick-off for food, drink and other entertainment offerings, will not play such a big role at the League’s new home.
“What will be interesting for us at Spurs is that we won’t have a dedicated tailgate in the same way that we’ve had at games in the past,” Kirkwood says. “That’s because of where the stadium is located and the space available. But to counter that, the in-stadium experience and the atmosphere inside the stadium will be very different, and hopefully for the better.”
Tailgate events have long been a part of the Wembley gameday experience, but Kirkwood notes that this may be restricted in the future. He says: “The space at Wembley has been contracting over recent years. We’ve had less and less space so have had to be a lot more tactical in how we use it.
“It may be in the future we’ll have challenges putting tailgate on because so much property has been built up. That whole area has transformed so we don’t have the freedom and flexibility that we did when we started out. You evolve based on the environment you’ve got.”
Turning theories into reality
Regarding judging the fan experience at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Kirkwood adds: “There will be activities outside the stadium at Spurs, but until fans get to the game, react to the environment and see how it all works they’re all kind of theories to me at the moment.
“This is a stadium that we’ve been working on for four years, so it’s an exciting period for us, but I wouldn’t say that we’ve figured it all out. It’s definitely a case of putting on an event there that hopefully we can be proud of and working on refining it.
“The first Twickenham game was exciting, but not without its challenges. The first Wembley game we probably got away with some things, purely because nobody had a point of reference for it. The Spurs experience will be unique and different for us, but also additive.”
In August, the NFL agreed a long-term partnership with Roc Nation, the US entertainment agency founded by rapper and businessman Jay-Z. Serving as the League’s official live music entertainment strategists, the tie-up has begun with the NFL’s 100th season with Roc Nation to spearhead and advise on the selection of artists for NFL tentpole performances, including the Super Bowl, and assist in the production and promotion of new music as well as culture- and cause-focused initiatives.
Kirkwood said that while the deal will not have an impact on this year’s London games, NFL UK will be talking to its US colleagues about future opportunities. He says: “It’s obviously an exciting development and gives us greater opportunities, but we were well into game planning when that deal was announced.”
A non-tribal experience
It might be one year later than originally planned, but the Raiders and Bears will enter Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, bringing the NFL’s diverse, multi-coloured tapestry to another new venue.
Kirkwood concludes: “It’s interesting to note where the fans are coming from for the games. About 80% are from the UK, 12% are from mainland Europe and 7-8% are from the US or are expats. We had one game a few years back where we covered the first four integers of every postcode in the UK.
“So, the fanbase comes from far and wide. It’s non-tribal so all 32 team jerseys, plus a bunch of other team jerseys, can be worn on the day and everybody congregates. I think that’s quite unique, not just from an NFL perspective but I’d argue for a sports experience anywhere. That atmosphere of everyone bonding in the love of the game itself I think drives to the core of the fan experience.”