When the Dolphins last played in London, they were part-ambassadors, and part-tourists.
Then-owner Wayne Huizenga rented out the Tower of London for a team party. A 26-foot Jason Taylor robot roamed Trafalgar Square.
It was the first regular-season NFL game held overseas, and the league expected its teams to help spread the gospel.
“You saw a lot of fans wherever you went,’’ said center Samson Satele, one of just a handful of current players who were on that team in 2007. “They have their own football out there, obviously. But they were still learning [our] football game when we were there.’’
The Dolphins are back in England this week for a return visit, but without the animatronics. This time around, it’s strictly business.
The team will make the eight-hour flight to the United Kingdom overnight Thursday and leave right after the game ends Sunday.
At least the players will. Their gear will have to catch a later flight, just one snag in the complicated process of moving a football franchise overseas — if just for a weekend.
Getting together 53 players, two-dozen coaches, countless staff members, their families and the 18,000 pounds of equipment that’s needed to play an away NFL game — from shoulder pads to chewing gum — is tough enough when the game is in Tampa.
Now imagine checking all those people and all that gear through customs.
“The big concern is the manifest,” said Dolphins equipment manager Joe Cimino, who will play traffic cop when the team’s chartered flight lands at Gatwick Airport about 7 a.m. Friday. “Each department has had to submit customs, and they’re really sticklers on what you have.”
That’s why Cimino’s team began the process long before the flight leaves from Fort Lauderdale on Thursday afternoon. It can take up to five hours to check all of the luggage headed to London, particularly since the team will need gear for both a light practice and the game.
But that kind of advance legwork cannot be done on the return trip. There’s just no time after the game. For a normal trip, Cimino’s team can have the charter packed in 40 minutes. Immigration won’t even let him touch the luggage after a certain checkpoint, and he’s not about to ask exhausted players and coaches to wait for hours at the gate until everything gets checked out.
And so, other than the essentials, the Dolphins will send their equipment back on a Virgin Atlantic flight later in the week (and hope it all gets to the right place).
Another headache: Making sure each player and coach has the proper paperwork to leave and enter the country.
Everyone needs their own ticket. And a good number of Dolphins players have never left the United States before. Stu Weinstein, the team’s director of security, began the passport process back in June. The team long ago facilitated documentation for dozens of players, many of whom are no longer on the team.
While playing internationally will be a new experience for most of the current players, the franchise has a long history overseas. Weinstein has helped plan trips to Tokyo, Berlin, and of course, London in 2007.
“It’s definitely gotten easier,” Weinstein said.
The NFL likes it that way. Games abroad aren’t going anywhere. Expect more of them.
Dolphins-Raiders Sunday is one of three games in London this year. Many believe these are test-runs for an NFL franchise relocating full time.
“Do I want a team in London? Absolutely,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international. “I fundamentally believe that the fan passion for a game is there. I believe we can make it happen logistically.”
Waller makes a compelling case: Roughly a quarter-million tickets have been sold for the three games this year, with nearly 90 percent of those fans living in the U.K. The average ticket price for those games is roughly $160. The NFL is now the sixth-most watched league on Sky Sports, and the fastest-growing pro sport in the country. The NFL claims 12 million British fans.
David Prodger, the new British Consul General in Miami, is among them. He visited Dolphins camp last week, meeting with Philbin and Weinstein, among others.
When asked whether his home country could support a team of its own, Prodger was less definitive.
“That’s the multimillion dollar question,” Prodger said. “I don’t know. … We are seeing that there’s a real, good solid demand in U.K.”
As for the foreseeable future, the trip to London will remain a special treat, for both players and their families.
The Dolphins’ charter will have some 160 people on it, said Dolphins Director of Team Operations Scott Bullis, and part of his challenge will be keeping them all on schedule.
It won’t all be work, however. The team has Friday night off, and those not too jet-lagged can take a bus tour of the city’s legendary sights.
And unlike seven years ago, the Dolphins’ public outreach commitments are few. The team will practice Friday at Allianz Park, home of Saracens F.C. rugby team. And then on Saturday, coach Joe Philbin and a few select players will appear at the NFL on Regent Street, a fan festival and street fair.
Center Mike Pouncey can’t wait. He has missed the first three games of this season with a significant hip injury, but his goal all along has been to return in time for the London game. He views it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
For guys like Satele and Brandon Fields, make that twice-in-a-lifetime. Fields was a rookie when the Dolphins went in 2007, and he experienced it all.
The party with the Crown Jewels. A wild Friday practice on a rugby field, with spectators coming and going. The game at Wembley Stadium, where the pitch was a mess after on and off rain.
Not to mention the food, which he diplomatically described as in need of “a little spice.”