PHOENIX – During a reconnaissance trip to London last October, four Vikings executives — Lester Bagley, Kevin Warren, Steve LaCroix and Steve Poppen — were put in charge of taking a pulse on everything involved in the lead-up to last season’s Week 8 game between the Patriots and Rams at Wembley Stadium.
And when the contest finally kicked off, they all came away with heightened admiration for the enthusiasm that had built.
“The passion over there, I think, was a surprise to all of us,” said Bagley, Vikings vice president of public affairs. “It quickly gave us the feel for the love they have for the NFL game. They love the real deal, the real game. Not a preseason game, not the World League of American Football. They want the real NFL game that counts.”
The Vikings execs also gained a clearer understanding of just how many moving parts are involved in pulling off the league’s annual International Series contest, from travel to promotions and ticketing to community outreach and the football side of things. So as the Vikings prepare to be hosts of a Sept. 29 clash with the Steelers in London, they’re already busy coordinating efforts across all fronts.
From a promotional standpoint, John Sullivan, Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith and Kyle Rudolph will head to both London and Ireland next week, traveling to multiple cities to begin generating buzz for the game.
In addition, Vikings Entertainment Network continues ironing out details for a partnership with the UK’s Sky Network, aiming to deliver a steady feed of Vikings-related programming leading up to September.
From a travel standpoint, the team already has made the decision to fly to London on Sept. 23 — the Monday before the game — hoping to quickly adjust to the time difference while smoothly transitioning into game preparation mode.
Yet for the organization as a whole, it won’t be standard road game travel either with the Vikings hoping to bring at least some of the Mall of America Field experience to England. That means taking cheerleaders, Viktor the Viking, familiar game-day music.
“We’re even talking about shipping the gjallarhorn,” LaCroix said. “I’m pretty sure it won’t quite fit in the overhead. But it’s all part of our effort to bring our brand over there.”
Bill Belichick has taken the Patriots on the London voyage twice and come back with blowout victories both times, including last season when New England hammered St. Louis 45-7.
Belichick believes New England’s operations people jump-started the success by coordinating travel and lodging and convenient facilities for practice, meetings and classroom work.
“Hopefully as a team you just flow into it,” Belichick said. “It’s not like going to another NFL city. So the preparation by the people on the operations side of things is the big key. Then ultimately the team needs to be focused and mature enough to be able to deal with the changes and be able to generate the focus on the game with so much potential difference and distraction.”
That quest for normalcy remains the top priority for the Vikings. Earlier this month, General Manager Rick Spielman and vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski took their own exploratory trip to London to further research the best possible setups, eyeing hotels in conjunction with venues for practice and backup plans in case of poor weather.
Coach Leslie Frazier has provided his input as well. Frazier said his biggest concern is establishing an optimal practice site while also not overlooking minor details such as food. Most of all, Frazier hopes to keep the team focused.
“[The key will be] reminding the players this is a business trip,” he said. “As different as it will be, we need to be in the mind-set that this is a regular-season game. It’s not a preseason game. So I need to get them in that mind-set that although we’re traveling and going out of the country and they’ve got a lot of friends and relatives talking about London and going to Europe, this is an important regular-season game.”