Ep.1: Cutting-Edge Stadium Technology with Christian Lau
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Christian Lau, Head of Technology for the Los Angeles Football Club, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how the LAFC are cutting edge with their use of technology when it comes to their Banc of California Stadium, and how that positively impacts fan experience. What are the LAFC doing to organically build their community in a crowded Los Angeles market? How does having strong WiFi connectivity allow them to cater to fans needs on social media, while at the same time rolling out forward thinking technologies? How are the LAFC using artificial intelligence?
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Welcome to Gameday Playbook presented by fan food, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently. I’m your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Christian Lau, Head of Technology at the Los Angeles Football Club. Christian, super excited to have you on the show.
Happy to be here, Rob.
Can you give a quick overview on who you are and what you do?
Sure. So I’m the Head of Technology for LAFC, the newest major league soccer team to join the league. We’ve written our second season and I manage technology for the club as well as California stadium.
Awesome. So the first thing that I want to dish about with you is the Banc of California Stadium, which is the first new open air stadium built in LA since 1962 and it boasts a 22,000 seat capacity. It’s one of the most technologically advanced buildings in the world. And it serves as a test facility for many partners and technology companies developing proof of concept ideas that will be guiding the forest for the future of the fan experience across the professional sports and entertainment industry. So can you give us a little bit more insight on what’s cooking there?
Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, it is a stadium. We play football there, or some refer to that as soccer. But you know, really it’s the lab for a lot of partners, perspective partners. We do a lot of testing, a lot of A/B testing around the guest experience technology, whether that’s point of sale, access controls… We do a lot of stuff with ticketing, next-generation type of things like augmented reality, artificial intelligence, biometric type things like ticketing and age verification — you name it. We pretty much will do anything at least once.
And when you’re doing these tests, where does the adoption side of this come in? Because if you’re pushing the boundaries of technology, now you’ve got to get it implemented so people can start using them. And probably for a lot of these people, this is the first time that they’re seeing this stuff. So how does the adoption side work?
You know, it’s actually really strong. So just to give you a little bit of insight, you know, well over 50% of our customers are between the age of 25 and 34. The average age is around 27. They over index on mobile. 75% of our guests are on iOS devices. And so we skew heavy on iOS. So we work with Apple and the Apple Pay team on a lot of things as well. But you know, sometimes it is the first time that you’ve seen it conceptually. They know what AI is. You know, they definitely prefer mobile devices and interacting with the device versus the human. They uptake on some of the different things that we’ve tested has been really high and well received.
So how much does this impact the fan experience? Cause I’m just envisioning myself attending a match there and this seems fantastic, especially considering a lot of times I have a hard time getting Wifi in a stadium. When I go to a game nonetheless given me an experience that I’ve never seen before and it’s something that I would love to continue to go back because it seems like it makes my experience better, which would be a win-win for everybody.
Christian Lau: Yeah, absolutely. So Banc of California Stadium we have right now the benchmark in the industry for connectivity. We’ve got a very robust WiFi work that services, like I said, 22,000 guests, but was actually built for 75,000? We decided to over-engineer it. I’ve got a hundred gigs of dark fiber that sit under the stadium right now. We use about 10 gigs and we’re barely penetrating that network. On top of that, we have a very spectacular distributed antenna system. And we’re actually working on an overlay antenna network with Verizon and AT&T through our partner mobility. So we’re definitely really hardcore when it comes to connectivity because you need to have that infrastructure in order to bring in the types of technologies that we’re working with. Cause the customer, if they’re going to use these systems, these applications, they have to have the bandwidth to do so.
Well, this seems like the most obvious thing in the world. So first off, thank you for doing that. I mean, it makes complete sense, but why isn’t every stadium doing that? Or why haven’t they upgraded? Because it makes complete sense that you would do more than necessary. Knowing the amount of times it doesn’t work and it doesn’t even mean stadiums. I mean, I’ve been to events everywhere where I’m in crap. When I go to Lollapalooza it’s the same type thing. You get 25, 50, 100,000 people in an area where it’s a content haven. Everybody wants to do is share their experience, which I have to imagine is very similar to go into one of your matches where you’re excited, you’re around the fan, you’re seeing all these cool things, all you want to do is share it. And all of a sudden it’s like, I have zero bars and my internet doesn’t work. And you’re like, man, this is killing my experience. So why doesn’t every stadium have this?
You know, I think there’s a couple things. So when we, cause like I said, our stadium is in year two, so it’s still new. And when we decided to build a stadium, our focus is guest experience. And you know, at the end of the day, we really wanted to make sure that the social media experience was going to be the best in the business. Being in Los Angeles with the demographic we had, we knew that we needed to hit the mark. And so that was kind of our driver. Our upload speeds are faster than our download speeds for Branston. So Instagram was really top of mind when we built this out. Um, so, you know, we took the time to travel around the country to take a look at other venues and how they do things, you know, throughout their operation. And then we wanted to understand connectivity, which is definitely a struggle for a lot of venues, right? So we knew that that was easily solvable with the right partners and investment. And I think that’s what it comes down to. I think you have venues out there, some that are older, so the investment would be higher to have a very robust network for their customers. There’s a lot of retrofitting involved, that kind of thing. But I think newer venues are really focusing on that experience. Banc of California Stadium, everything in our stadium is fiber. We have no analog conductivity, no copper in the building really. You can plug into e-ternet. But other than that, everything is fiber.
This is absolutely fantastic and so refreshing for me to hear that you built it with Instagram in mind. So how has this allowed you or the marketing department to tailor this to better enhance the fan experience and pretty much the overall brand of LAFC, knowing that you’re so connected that your fans have the ability to share more and really be integrated into everything that you’re doing, being better brand ambassadors?
Well, you know, it’s interesting. So LAFC has really grown organically. We don’t have any traditional marketing in the marketplace today. We really rely on word of mouth. We have a pretty strong web presence on social media. There’s a lot of user-generated content on social media for LAFC. But really, you know, honestly the experience at the stadium has been well received and everybody that’s coming into that venue and you know, just the buzz around Los Angeles is really word of mouth.
That’s great. Because what I was actually going to ask you is, knowing amount of options in the LA market, how do you build a loyal fan base? And from what it sounds like is you get people to experience what it’s like to be there and allow the tribe to organically build itself.
Yeah, absolutely. So, you know when we started LAFC, the concept before we had a stadium, before we had a team, we knew that we wanted to bring the world’s game to the world’s city. Right? And we knew that around the world you have soccer purists, those ultra supporters that really make the difference for their clubs — whether it’s IX in Amsterdam or a Berisha Dortmund over in Germany. You have these clubs that have been around for a hundred years, right? But the fabric of the club really comes around the supporter and we knew that. So we wanted to focus on basically creating a supporter culture. At LAFC, our supporter group is called the 3252, uh, which is several smaller supporter groups that make up the support or union. The 3252 name is as derived from the number of seats, which are standing room, a safe standing seats at the stadium. And we literally have 3,252 of them. And just by coincidence, if you add those numbers together, it equals 12, which will be the 12th man. Right? So it’s a really cool experience. But by building that up, by focusing on LASC being a club and not a team and not a franchise, right. And then focusing on the community of Los Angeles and where we’re based as an expo park in south Los Angeles, basically the heart of LA. We knew that by doing these things, by having the type of outreach that we do in the community, that it would just build the club. So that’s how we’ve grown. It’s been an organic experience for us. It’s interesting. So you come to a match, which you’ll have to come to sometime, and we’re perpetually sold out and you have this really cool cross section of society that’s there. You have people that want to watch the game. You have people that want to be there because it is kind of the place to be on any given night, which is really cool. So you have a lot of influencers and other people. We have celebrities come in the doo on their own free will, right? We don’t do paid appearances. We we have no interest in creating buzz inorganically. Like everything just has to happen on its own and that’s what has made us successful.
Let’s talk about fan-friendly pricing for a second. I’m curious about your thoughts on it because as a consumer, one of the challenges of going to live sporting events is the cost of it. It’s very prohibitive. So I’m living in Chicago right now. If we’re trying to go to a Cubs game, getting a ticket, getting food, getting beer, it’s going to be pretty expensive to go to a game. God forbid your family of four that you want to bring and have the same experience there. So hearing fan-friendly pricing, which I believe it was Mercedes Benz Stadium down in Atlanta that did this. I’m curious on your thoughts about it.
Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. So the stadium 60% of our seats are $40 or less, just so you know. And so we know there could be a barrier to entry for people. So we do have price points that start at $22 and go up for the seats. Parking is reasonable for what it is, and at the $30 range, 30% of our customers today actually take public transportation or Lyft or other ride share services and we want to continue to grow that. And then when you look at the concessions side of things, we don’t have low pricing all the time. Well, we have reasonable pricing all the time, but we actually do a 90 before 90. So 90 minutes before kickoff, we have specials throughout the stadium. So $4 beer, a $4 food that would otherwise be more expensive. And the food is really legit, right? It’s not just normal stadium fair. We actually have really cool food programming in the stadium and it’s a lot of local providers.I think Atlanta has really done a good job with the fan-friendly pricing. I think their per caps have gone up, you know, their basket size because of that. I think they’ve done really well with it and it’s something we’ll evaluate. We just have a different product, um, you know, throughout the stadium on concession. So it’s just a little bit different. We have local vendors here that have food that normally people would be lining up for around Los Angeles, right? Like tacos, for example, was really popular; a soul sausage, beer belly… These types of destinations in LA, you would see a line out the door. And so having that type of fair at the stadium, you have the same thing, right? People line up, they want something really specific. And some people actually come to the stadium for the food.
And I love it and it makes complete sense because every opportunity that you have is one to create a positive brand interaction. So with the way that things were previously done, all I can get is popcorn or pretzels or a hot dog and you’re like, well, I don’t even really eat this on a regular basis, albeit if you’re going to be grilling out and stuff, that’s almost its own lifestyle and way of doing it. I would go to a stadium and I would eat before because I wouldn’t want to eat in the stadium. But what I love is the experience because it’s more than just the play on the field. It’s the fans in the seats. But now you guys are layering on another thing of saying, hey, let’s get some local food that you guys absolutely want because guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to tell my friends, holy smokes, do you realize that I was able to eat X, Y, and Z? And I know last year I went to a Cubs game because my wife wanted to see a chef who had a special stand at the game that day. And that’s what brought us there. So for that to be one of the draws all the time, I absolutely love that.
Yeah, it’s actually pretty cool. And then you go to a place like SunTrust Park in Atlanta for example, H&F Burger in Atlanta is really popular and they started off at SunTrust Park, where they would basically make like 20 burgers and people would line up for those 20 burgers. And you know, it’s like an institution in Atlanta, right? So it’s the same idea. There’s foodies out there, they want the food anyway they can get it, they’ll show up to a baseball game or a soccer game to do it.
Rob Cressy: (15:55)
So with this in mind, and you guys always pushing the envelope on things, what are fans liking the most that you’re doing from a forward thinking technology or fan experience standpoint? Because we’ve talked about a lot of good things and I’m sure it’s sort of a hybrid of everything, but is there anything in particular that has stood out? You’re like, man, fans have been liking this. I know you mentioned biometrics and artificial intelligence and now local food providers and super fast connectivity. Is there anything that stands out to you?
Christian Lau: (16:29)
Yeah, I will tell you, we survey our customers frequently so we understand what they’d like to see. Artificial intelligence is a big deal for us. We use it for customer service now. People can ask questions about the venue, where to get certain types of beer or food, you know, where the restrooms are, that kind of thing. So people love it. And we’re working on AI to sell tickets, to sell parking passes. In the future we’re actually rolling out with Apple Pay on July 6th of this year. Order ahead through an AI Chat Bot, which is cool because you basically use iMessage. Like everybody knows how to use, people know how to send a text and then they can order through natural language, a beer and pizza and then they can go pick it up, which is really easy. And then they just pay with Apple Pay. So it’s those types of initiatives that our customers really want because they don’t want to miss the action, they really just want to get out of their seat, grab a beer, grab some pizza, and then get back to their seats to watch the game.
Rob Cressy: (17:33)
With the AI, I know one of the challenges has been the personality or brand voice of it, of talking to a person. Like you and I are going to feel emotion and you’re gonna understand slangs and things like that. Whereas a lot of times, especially early on it may feel more robotic or almost like when you call the customer service line and you push zero and pound 800 times, you say customer service, customer service and things like “we cannot do that, please go back to menu one” and you’re like, “I just want to talk to somebody”. So where’s the fine line on that of adding brand voice or heartbeats to something that is going to add speed and convenience?
Christian Lau: (18:17)
Yeah, so we’re not quite there yet because of that. So there are some challenges with talking to AI, especially in a crowded venue that’s noisy. So for now we’re going to focus on really just text message. It makes it easy and then the person can really interact with the menu. It basically pops up a menu and then they can interact with this relatively easy.
Rob Cressy: (18:43)
So Christian, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience or be valuable to them?
Christian Lau: (18:52)
One of the big initiatives we’re working on right now is with the ticket master. We are rolling out safe ticks, which is their encrypted a ticketing platform, which is basically… It’s two parts. So you have a rolling barcode, and then a NFC contactless pass that you can either use it in our app or in your wallet. And you know that that’s coming very soon to us. Also other venues, the National Football League. So, you know, pretty soon ticketing is going to be a lot simple, and it’s going to be mobile driven. So that’s something in the marketplace that’s coming and I think that customers are gonna embrace it. I think it’s going to be really simple for them to get in the building. There’s a lot of benefits to it on both sides.
Rob Cressy: (19:38)
What about if we take this to the secondary market where I know a lot of fans, that’s where they’re going to be buying their tickets. So does this extend to that?
Christian Lau: (19:48) It does. Right now we’re working through the logistics of the secondary market with us. You know, obviously TM-Plus is our secondary marketplace. So those tickets transfer seamlessly. That’s very easy. But you know, ultimately that will likely weigh on the seller where they can talk about when they sell the tickets, they can have the location of the seat and then they would have to connect with the buyer to transfer that ticket. But I know that there are conversations being had to make that a little bit more seamless.
Rob Cressy: (20:32)
Christian, I love all things sports and I love when people and brands are forward-thinking and it was very refreshing for me to hear their perspectives of how you and the LAFC are being forward and using technology to enhance the fan and gameday experience. So thank you very much for that. Where can people connect with you and the LAFC?
Christian Lau: (20:58)
So you know, they can go to lafc.com and check it out. We have a very cool website. We’re also on all the social media channels you can imagine. And then you can look me up on LinkedIn.
Rob Cressy: (21:11)
As always. I would love to hear from you about this episode. Did it cause you to think or take action? I would also be curious to hear what is the best forward-thinking technology you’ve experienced at a stadium or sporting events. You can hit up Fanfood on Twitter at @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram, at FanFood app or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on Linkedin by searching Rob Cressy.