LAFC’s grease the wheels technology
It seems IT and venue technology is taking over the whole venue business. Technology will no doubt change the fan experience in stadiums and arenas forever. The general question is: How much technology can be implemented? How can a tech platform help organizations understand their fans’ behavior and spending? What kind of content the fans produce from within the venue? How venue technology platforms generate revenue for a compelling return on interest (ROI) model and justify the investment? Learn how the Los Angeles Football Club believes in ‘daring expeditions’ speaking strictly in terms of technology – and how this approach is serving them well.
The Los Angeles Football Club, commonly referred to as LAFC, is an American professional soccer team based in Los Angeles, US. The club competes in Major League Soccer (MLS) as a member club of the League’s Western Conference. The club was established on October 30th, 2014 and began play during the 2018 season as an expansion team.
Christian Lau, Chief Technology Officer, Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), is bright as a button when it comes to tech matters and he believes in taking technology to the next level. In an exclusive to ‘Coliseum’ during the ‘Coliseum Online Week EUROPE Worldwide – held from March 22nd-26th, 2021 – brimming with confidence he affirmed that by 2024, about 90 percent of the technology that was built out in the LAFC’s residence – Banc of California Stadium – will be replaced and that any act can be brought to the venue. His nuggets of technical information kept the online audience engrossed and enriched during the Coliseum online meet.
The 22,000-capacity Banc of California Stadium is a soccer-specific stadium in the Exposition Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. It is the home of Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles FC and future home of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Angel City FC.
Christian Lau – who joined LAFC in 2017 – is a person who thinks out of the box. He starts off by informing the innovative technology that has been introduced in the Banc of California Stadium and takes the online audience on a visual journey.
Banc of California
Stated Christian Lau, “Basically, our stadium is in the heart of Los Angeles. We opened it in 2018 and development of the stadium started way back in 2016. It was a very interesting time for the club, building everything new, basically – a new stadium, a new training facility as well as building a team.”
He added, “The Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles looks beautiful and we are scrambling to get everything ready to open with a percentage of fans on April 17th against Austin FC which is the latest club in Major League Soccer (MLS) here in the United States.”
LAFC key mantra
The key mantra of LAFC is to stay connected with their supporters and interact with people like Lau puts in, “One of the things I focus on is listening to people and having the idea that people have great knowledge and there are people that have done exactly what we have done in the past before us and they have done a wonderful job. But, the interesting thing for us is we like to get employed and we want to understand what people have done in the marketplace in the past. My personal ethos has everything to do with listening and then understanding what it is and then a lot of the time doing the exact opposite. And it is not to be a contrary or to be disruptive and has everything to do with trying to move the needle and move things forward.”
Lau joined the LAFC fold on May 1st, 2017. One sentence of his senior colleague Benny Tran – who is presently the Executive Vice-President, Corporate Strategy and Operations at Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) – while having lunch still rings in his ears – ‘We need technology, figure it out’. And this sentence proved to be pearls of wisdom for him and Lau decided to make Banc of California one of the most futuristic stadiums in the world.
At LAFC, ideation is key as Lau stated, “We pick up ideas and listen to our customers. Whether it is about discussing functionality of LAFC’s mobile app or how the fans wanted to purchase merchandise – we discuss everything with our fans. So, that’s part of what we do is any technology that we are going to bring in to our venue or anything that we are going to pursue as an organization is generally informed by our customers because we listen to them and we want to understand what it is. So, that serves us very well and this is something I highly recommend. I think a lot of organizations do this.”
Tips: “Never make decisions in a vacuum.”
Focus on Friction
He added, “There are a lot of things that we focus on today. And not all of it is glamorous. You have got things that basically keep the lights on and the building running and we focus on that. But, on the fans’ side, anything that the customer is facing, we want to eliminate friction everywhere possible and I think we have done an okay job on that. There is always work to be done but ultimately we want to eliminate any perceived pain point in our building – whether it is on our concourse, whether its restrooms, clubs spaces, getting to the stadium, traffic, whatever it is, and we are working on it. With the COVID thwack still on, we spent an extraordinary amount of time working through eliminating serpentine queues to make people feel safe inside the venue.”
LAFC is today working on the next generation security which would facilitate patrons to basically come in to the venue unhindered – not having to stop, not having to divest items out of their pockets and so that’s a customer journey that the club is getting closer to. The focal point is facial recognition ticketing, for example, which LAFC rolled out back in 2019, got into a pilot phase and really 2020 before the pandemic, of course, they had to press the pause button due to coronavirus. But, now the club is going to focus on a full biometric, particularly facial recognition customer journey where Lau explained, “You can come in with your face and you do not have to wait in never-ending queues anymore, and we also focus heavily on age verification, payment concessions, so you literally can come in and do everything – transact with your mobile device or even more old school stuff like credit card and those types of things.”
Informed Lau, “Ticketing was a big deal for us – how it has been, how it will be, digital ticket facility – Ticketmaster is our partner and we have worked with them to develop the SAFETIXTM platform which they are rolling out globally over time. Another thing that we focused on is contactless payment – Apple Pay, Google Pay – key components of our business. Apple Pay usage in our stadium is extremely high going back to 2018 and it is only going to get stronger because in a COVID world customers prefer that frictionless experience, ever happy to oblige.”
Lau informed that as far as access control is concerned, “We have a partner in Austria that we are working with to bring in not only turnstiles but also the next generation turnstiles where you have facial recognition, ticketing technology built into it so any of these devices in the future you can just walk up to, it opens for you if you have the ticket and off to the match. So, trying to eliminate that friction as a lot of venue operators know you have late arriving audiences that don’t show up sometimes. For us, not only you have the late arriving audience, you also have the Los Angeles traffic which is notorious and has really started to uptick again over the last month as the United States slowly comes out of the pandemic and gradually return to normality.”
When Lau joined LAFC in 2017, he visited different venues to look at their operations but really the “focal point was we did not have an idea of their work. There was more understanding, but didn’t work. The challenges they were having and then you look at the type of club spaces that they have got and we saw a lot of sameness, a lot of things that were great, fantastic, though we wanted to take that to the next level. So, what we have done at the Banc of California Stadium is really create this experience in our spaces for the customer. So, the team store, for example, we went extra deep on the aesthetics and the design of that store. Our field club – that is a club space, well seats on the pitch which are very amazing in themselves. Basically, we have pitchside seats fitted on the grass. It is fake grass and not the real grass we actually use on the actual pitch. But, the pitchside experience which is new and we are the first to do that and the customers love it and we have got a waiting list to get those seats and the suites. It is pretty phenomenal.”
The sunset deck at LAFC’s digs sits on the top of the facility. It comes armed with a lot of amenities and the afterparties are held in this space after every match.
Lau informed that the Banc of California Stadium does not have access control on suites – “We actually have door attendants because we wanted to have a really high caliber, high-end vibe. We wanted to be very welcoming and I invite all of you to come to Los Angeles just to see the stadium in an event, especially when we are back to 100 percent capacity which we hope to be this summer.”
The facility is all fiber and Lau asserted, “We are always interacting, always working through and interestingly enough, opening in 2018, putting the technology in place in 2017, I estimate by 2024 we will have replaced about 90 percent of the technology that we built out in the Banc of California Stadium and our technology is so cutting-edge that we can bring any act into the building.”
Talking about best of breed, he stated, “But best of breed does not always stay best of breed – new things come, new standards come, the marketplace changes, customer requirements change over time and so we are always looking at what’s next and then making those changes as we need to operationally which has really served us well and I think other venues probably think similarly but for us it’s a key component of how we operate.”
Lau continued, “Peter Guber is a genius businessman. He is our Chairman and he is also the owner of the Major League Baseball (MLB) team Los Angeles Dodgers and the National Basketball Association (NBA) team Golden State Warriors in the United States. I had a chat with him when I first came on board and we talked about a lot of things. But, the one takeaway I had from his guidance was – ‘Be Daring’. That was his focal point for me to really hit the ground running in my role and how to approach it. So, I took that to heart and so that’s why we do the things that we do on the technology side. Specifically, the technology when you think about, some of the things that are coming up when you are working on everything from autonomous retail, cryptocurrency, concessions and retail, and not because of trendy but because we know that crypto is kind of where things are headed. We are looking 10 years down the road. How do you inaugurate these things to buy tickets, to buy experiences, to buy beer, so we are focused on those kinds of things?”
He further mentioned about spatial engineering, musical space and trying to get GPS to be more accurate, for mobile ordering, so fans while at the Banc of California Stadium can order something and have it brought right where he or she is standing. Such is the prowess of technology.
Lau believes in taking technology to the next level as he puts in, “Talking about Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) which we have been using – practical application of AI. But, we want to take that to another level and we are looking at how you integrate that with sports betting for example, which is legal now in California but we think we are really going to have some cool stuff in place by the time it is legalized in California.”
‘Be Daring’ case in point
LAFC supporters started doing beer showers back in 2018 and the club decided to embrace it as they found it to be a cool way of celebrating.
- Participate – Says Lau, “We like to Participate, we never shut down a conversation, and we like to have conversations with start-ups and other organizations to understand what’s working, what’s not working.”
- Collaborate – He added, “We love to Collaborate – we work with all types of companies, we have partners that we work with, anything that is of interest we look at it. By keeping your mind open to new ideas, it has served our interests.”
- Iterate – Lau advised, “Iterate all day long – install stuff and go down the path of technology and take a risk, try anything once and it will likely work out because we take calculated risk all the time, things work, generally very well and if it does not we decide we want to go in another direction. Never be afraid to make changes.”
- Elevate – He added, “Thinking about our stadium and our experience, don’t be afraid to go against the grain, focus heavily on your operation and what you want to bring to your fans. And that’s key for us.”
Lau concluded with his pearl of wisdom, “And what I always tell people I work with is whether it’s LAFC or friends or partners -always get to “yes”. There are all kinds of things that we look at, there is stuff that we are working on today and it will be a struggle to get certain things done, but it doesn’t matter, it will be worth it in the end.”
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