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Bucs’ London ‘home’ holds the future of NFL’s globalization

The new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is the biggest reason the league can eventually make a London team a reality.
Murals of Carolina receiver Curtis Samuel and Bucs tight end O.J. Howard outside Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. [EDUARDO ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 12
Updated Oct. 13

LONDON — Walk through the corridors of Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, and the North London facility still has that new-car smell.

This is what $1 billion can buy: the United Kingdom’s most state-of-the-art soccer stadium and hope for the NFL that it can conquer the world.

Opened in April, it’s the home of one of the English Premier League’s most popular teams. And while the 62,214-seat gem speaks to the growing global brand of the “Spurs,” it also feeds the NFL beast like no other stadium.

It’s modern, extravagant but also functional.

The Bucs will play “host” to the division-rival Carolina Panthers here. They surrendered a home game to play in London, though an international game is a prerequisite for a team hosting the Super Bowl, as Tampa Bay will do in 2021. It’s far from Tampa but, Bucs signage covers the stadium, from the end zones to the locker room. They’ve even brought the cannons across the Atlantic.

There is, however, a bigger picture that becomes evident quickly upon entering the glistening stadium: Tottenham represents the future globalization of the game looks like.

Preparations for pregame festivities are made at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday in preparation for the Bucs' division game against the Panthers in London. [EDUARDO ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times]

Since the NFL’s international series began in 2007, bringing football abroad to London’s Wembley Stadium once a year, the league used borrowed facilities. The NFL has played games outside the U.S. in Wembley, a rubgy stadium in nearby Twickenham and in Mexico City.

But it’s never had a true NFL facility, until now.

The Bucs won’t have to play on a soccer field, they won’t have to dress in a locker room unfit for the needs of a 53-player team plus coaches and staff. This facility was built for the NFL. When Spurs chairman Daniel Levy began dreaming of a new stadium for his team, he pitched an all-encompassing soccer and football facility to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who wasn’t initially convinced.

But Levy delivered, and the stadium the Bucs will call "home" on Sunday, will essentially serve as the NFL's European base.

Start on the field, where a natural grass soccer pitch slides under the south end zone stands in three pieces, revealing an artificial turf field exclusively built for football underneath. The field can completely transition from soccer to football in less than 48 hours.

That's big for players, who have come to London and become frustrated with the high soft lush grass of a soccer field.

“You watch a lot of games, whether they were games at Wembley or old ones at (Twickingham), and guys are kind of slipping and sliding around, the grass is super thick,” said Bucs tight end Cameron Brate, who toured the Tottenham Stadium during a promotional visit last summer. “Even that game in Mexico City where they had to move, soccer fields aren’t really conducive to the same actions that football requires.

"So to actually have a field that is a football field, as a player, that’s awesome, because we’re not going to be exposed to injuries where some of the guys in the past were.”

The stadium also has NFL-specific medical facilities. It includes its own emergency room for use in case players need immediate treatment for the most serious of injuries.

"I think it's a state-of-the-art facility," said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer. "Our goal is to have care available here that's equal to anywhere in the U.S. Obviously, as each new stadium is designed and comes on board, you learn new things and you see things you want to improve. Stadiums today aren't designed the was they were 25, 30 years ago."

An upper deck view of the football field at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which has an artificial turf NFL field under the soccer pitch [EDUARDO ENCINA | Tampa Bay Times]

Before last week's inaugural NFL game at Tottenham, the Spurs' team store, which is the largest retail area for any soccer club in Europe, was transformed into a 25,000 square foot team store. Not only did it sell Bucs and Panthers gear, but jerseys from every team in the league? Need a Gardner Minshew jersey? Maybe a Tedy Bruschi retro Patriots jersey? They have it.

Both the Bucs and Panthers will bring their own fans — and the Bucs havd a long-established following in the UK because of previous trips here — but make no mistake, this is above all an NFL event designed to reach throughout Europe. Inside the team store, the languages spoken are as diverse as the jersey selection.

"It's fun," said Bucs coach Bruce Arians, whose Arizona team played in Wembley Stadium two years ago, on the London experience. "It is different. The crowd is different. The noise level is totally different than it is in the states because it never dies. It is a lot of energy and a lot of fun. I just hope we play a hell of a lot better than the last time we were here, (when) I was here."

This is the first year in a 10-year contract between the Spurs and the NFL to play at least two games a year in Tottenham. The stadium hosted its inaugural NFL game last week between the Raiders and Bears.

Add in two games at Wembley later this season and the NFL will play four games in London in 2019. Goodell wants to see more, and there’s been discussion about a team playing full-time in London. The Jaguars — who are owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the English Premier club Fulham — has played a game in London each season since 2013 and will continue to through at least 2020. And Wembley will host at least two NFL games through 2020.

Tottenham makes having team in London one step closer.

"It gives us optionality on the scheduling," Goodell told Sky Sports last week. "So having two great facilities with Wembley and the Spurs' stadium, the combination will give us the ability to flex more games into the London sports scene and try to work around all the big events. That will give us a chance to hopefully play more games here."

An NFL team in London would have several obstacles, none more important than a unprecedented travel schedule that would include at least 10 trips to the U.S. After taking deliberate measures to prepare themselves for this trip alone, players like Brate say that would be difficult.

“I definitely think the NFL has an interest in that because that would draw a ton of different viewers, money, everything in it,” Brate said. “I don’t know if logistically it would be feasible because how much we’ve been preparing for this one trip. That home team would have to travel across eight times a year plus preseason games and you’d be asking a lot. But who knows. I don’t think it would be easy to get free agents though.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.




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