Logistics Blog | Total Distribution, Inc. in Jacksonville, FL
The Logistics of the NFL

One might well conclude that the biggest logistical challenge confronting Hamzah Ahmad when he became the Jacksonville Jaguars’ director of logistics in February 2013 would be lining up tackling sleds and practice-field goal posts for the team’s inaugural NFL game in London’s Wembley Stadium the following October; London as in England, not Kentucky or Ohio. Or, for that matter, finding a suitable practice field itself.

In truth, Ahmad’s No. 1 concern had virtually nothing to do with a pro football game, but everything to do with the participants getting to a pro football game in a foreign land: passports.

“It’s what surprised me perhaps as much as anything,” Ahmad recounts. To begin with, there were more than a few players – rookies, especially – who had never thought about needing a passport, let alone apply for one. The bigger challenge, though, was time.

As it is every season, the 2013 NFL schedule was announced in mid-April, seemingly leaving months for gathering the data required for dozens of passports, submitting the applications, then waiting for them to arrive. Yes, but …. An NFL team’s final 53-player roster is never determined until a week before the season opens on the second weekend in September. Jacksonville’s London game was set for October 27, seven weeks later. Worse, even that “final roster” was continually subject to change, due to injuries, and players added and cut as a 16-game season unfolds. So whoever would wind up taking the field in London first needed a passport to get there. After all, to the Brits manning the customs booths, even a Tom Brady is still just another Yank entering the UK on business, notwithstanding his physique or the high-profile nature of his business.

With London games being a fixture of the Jaguars’ future, Ahmad brought a passport agency to the team’s offices at EverBank Field once the 2013 season kicked off, and launched a thorough process for every person who would be traveling. That the team wound up obtaining passports for a few players dropped from the roster by the time the game was played was simply a cost of doing business; money well spent, Ahmad confirms. And, yes, every player and team staff member did had passport in hand when the team’s charter flight touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport.

“We’ve gone up the learning curve since then,” Ahmad says. He and his three logistics colleagues have needed to. The Jaguars’ London date this year is Week 3, September 24, against the Baltimore Ravens.

Passports now arouse barely a shrug in the face of a more recent challenge, one that confronts all 32 league logistics directors.

Long gone are the days when United Airlines proudly declared that almost every NFL team was flying its friendly skies. Indeed, for the past two-plus seasons the skies have been notably less friendly, because United, along with Americans Airlines and Delta Airlines have quietly concluded that taking wide-bodied commercial airliners out of regular service and turning them into NFL charter flights for a select few customers is no longer such a good deal.

In turn, in 2014, American ended its 20-year tradition of flying the Miami Dolphins to all of their games. Five other teams – the Arizona Cardinals, Ravens, Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers – got essentially the same message. And Jacksonville had heard it once before, from Delta. All the more reason, then, why the New England Patriots in August purchased two Boeing 767 wide-body jets, at a reported cost of $10 million.

A trend? Perhaps. Especially when the nation’s trio of “legacy” carriers (United, American and Delta), would just as soon swap the wide-bodied planes that football players prefer with narrower, more fuel-efficient and single-aisle aircraft. Seating six ordinary passengers per row is one thing; squeezing 300-plus-pound linemen into those same seats is something else, even with center seats unoccupied and arm rests up.

As Michael Corleone muttered coldly The Godfather, “Nothing personal, strictly business.” The raw financials explain it just as coldly. Flying a pro team to its 10 pre-season and regular-season games represents roughly $2- to $2.5 million worth of business. To football fans, it sounds like a tidy sum. But to airlines who tally annual revenues in billions? Well, not so much. Privately, carriers might even describe flying an NFL team to and from a game site as a disruption; even on a weekend, the average six to eight hours of air time could rake in many more dollars elsewhere.

To be sure, no pro team – as well as none of the college teams in the “Power Five” football conferences – is soon to be stranded in the terminal. The Jaguars’ Ahmad says the team right now enjoys “a really good situation,” and it continues to explore “lots of air travel options.” That league officials and team owners are more aware of the situation and doing their own exploring certainly alludes to more changes in the winds of those once-friendly skies.

Whatever changes the winds do bring, Jacksonville’s Ahmad and his counterparts will take it in stride, as they always have. To help, each spring the league’s logistics directors hold their own huddle to swap “war stories” and share ideas.

Such as negotiating hotel stays. It’s now practically an art form. The process typically begins in mid March, when directors list the five most desirable hotels in the league cities a team anticipates traveling to in the coming season. Logistics staffs also keep “black books” filled with date about earlier hotel visits, plus more data about meals, busses, police escorts, practice sites, even construction alerts. Some directors also make it a point to visit hotels each spring, just to see for themselves.

“The goal is always the same in every city, a distraction-free trip that allows the team to focus solely on football,” Ahmad says.

Once the NFL releases its season schedule in April, Ahmad transfers his hotel roster to a white board; then an annual grind begins: Phone calls and responses to first gauge a hotel’s interest, then more calls to lock in room rates, meal prices and ancillary costs for each of the season’s visits. And grind it can be, in large part because corporate America can swallow up hotel rooms by the thousands with one convention – as often as not a multi-day affair booked years in advance. An NFL booking may pale in comparison, and can leave NFL logistics chiefs scrambling.

Even so, an NFL team booking isn’t puny. The Jaguars typically need between 160 and 180 rooms per road trip, plus seven to nine suites, despite two players sharing a room. But along with 53 players for regular season games (up to 90 in preseason), add … nearly two dozen coaches … a half dozen trainers … four strength and conditioning staff members … two operations staffers … eight staffers to oversee equipment … a trio of doctors and a chiropractor … team chaplain … a host of technology and digital media staff members … PR staff members … TV and radio broadcasters and their engineers … and typically representatives from corporate sponsors.

Accordingly, a NFL team needs four or five 52-passenger busses to carry everyone to and from hotels, airports and stadiums. The Jaguars also put a Transportation Security Administration officer on each departing bus – because they do all their pre-flight security screening at their home stadium beforehand. The TSA officers ensure the busses go non-stop to the charter aircraft.

Rest assured, trucks and trailers are still needed. So are detailed manifests of both gear and personnel. An NFL team ships between 15,000 and 16,000 pounds of gear per trip. Except for West Coast games – and the London jaunt – the Jaguars will send 50 percent via truck. The rest is aboard its charter flight. And, no, so far nothing’s ever gotten lost. To keep it that way, Ahmad bag-tags “everything!” and always does a sweep of each bus once it empties.

Consider it his definition of a prevent defense. “Phones, sunglasses, iPads, you name it,” he says. “Somebody will leave it on a seat.”

Story by: Chuck Day

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