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Podcast: Christian Lau, CTO of LAFC and BMO Stadium

Innovation at the Pitch – Transforming the Fan Experience at LAFC with Christian Lau

Get ready to dive into the future of stadium technology with Christian Lau, the Chief Technology Officer of LAFC and BMO Stadium. In this episode, Christian shares his unique career journey from the Navy to publishing and consulting, leading to his impactful role at LAFC. He discusses the challenges and rewards of building a stadium from scratch and the innovative technologies used to enhance the fan experience.

Highlights include:

01:25 Christian Lau’s Career Beginnings
02:07 Transition to Publishing and Consulting
03:23 Joining LAFC and Initial Challenges
07:04 Building the Stadium: Challenges and Rewards
08:50 Technological Innovations at BMO Stadium
10:54 Community Focus and Future Goals

About Christian Lau

As Chief Technology Officer at Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) and BMO Stadium, Christian has shaped the organization’s overarching technical vision and strategy.  His primary area of focus is the use of technology to enhance the guest experience, eliminate friction and provide additive experiences for customers. Through his work as a thought leader and innovator in the space, Lau has successfully positioned the Club as one of the most innovative, tech-forward sports organizations and venues in the U.S. 

Lau’s strategic approach has attracted tech partnerships that have allowed the stadium to test and host first-of-its-kind technologies including biometrics for age verification, NFC ticketing and autonomous retail technology, that have helped bring conceptual ideas to market, and have proven to deliver a next-generation guest experience a that will soon be seen in arenas, stadiums, and large venues worldwide.

Watch the Podcast Recording

Podcast Transcript

Welcome back to the next episode of the MVP Interactive Podcast. Today, we have a very special guest, Christian Lau with the LAFC football club. He is the chief technology officer of LAFC and BMO Stadium. Christian has over 20 years of experience in managing multi multi scale technology operations across various industries and has a proven track record of  innovating and transformative solutions that enhance the customer experience and drive business growth.

Christian has a unique blend of skills, including but not limited to software development, governance, security,  Artificial intelligence, experiential retail, and stadium technology infrastructure with a mission to leverage technology as a strategic asset for LAFC and create a competitive edge in the professional sports and entertainment industry.

Christian, thank you so much for joining us today.

Thanks James. I appreciate you having me. Yeah, absolutely. Well, as your background indicates, your technical skillset covers a fairly broad range of skills and experience. And, that obviously must come from a wide range of organizations and different industries, but, we like to learn about our guests career journey and, maybe tell our listeners, you know, where that started and how that led you to, LAFC.

Sounds good. So yeah, my, my career journey started a while ago in the United States Navy. I worked in intelligence for four years, and then I decided to play my hand at the private sector and, and making some money, which was always a nice thing. So I got in a submarine for four years. You weren’t able to save money. Unavailable for that but yeah, actually I have fond memories of the Navy, but when you’re living it and you’re traveling as much as I did, it was actually really cumbersome, but all worked out, maybe I think a well -rounded individual I’m told. but after that, I got into publishing.

I worked, down in San Diego for an organization. called Harcourt Bracing Company, which is now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. So it’s still in the business of a K to 12 publishing, trade, textbooks, you name it, multimedia platforms, et cetera. And then from that, I parlayed my career into rights managed and royalty free imagery as a customer in my previous job of buying a lot of content for different products.

Whether they were textbooks or online type platforms, just ended up getting into that realm. And then from there, I actually ended up in consulting for 13 years, just over 13 and a half years, actually. I worked for a company called Franchise Services, which was part of a family office, a guy that had done really cool things in the world and then just owns a bunch of businesses.

And so I ran technology for that organization. and I stayed a long time just because there was always things to do. And my boss used the yellow pad and had really no idea what technology was other than he needed technology to run businesses. And so that was actually a really nice thing. And then LAFC rolled around. that was actually a connection, a friend of a friend connection that worked out really well.

You know, we started talking, well, I started talking with LAFC and it was more about what I had experienced in different venues that didn’t work. And then how the guest experience could be like this next level thing and got the job. And so, you know, I came in just under a year before the stadium was to open. It was really just a giant hole in the ground, frankly, when I started.

We’re just laying down the foundations and then we also, you know, no coach, no player. just the concept of what we were going to do, a construct of what the future would look like. And, you know, got all that stuff sorted out, figured out the technology stack, deployed it, open the, you know, the arena or the arena. We call it an outdoor arena, just because of our foot print, but we opened the stadium in, 2018.

And, have been running it since and trying to innovate and just focus really on the elimination or friction, getting the guest experience, where we think it should be for the future and, taking some risks along the way, just to make sure that we’re doing the right things. And so far it’s, it’s been, well received by our customer. Yeah, for sure. We’ll, we’ll go into this a little bit later, but, it’s been pretty remarkable what the club has done to.

The city and its fan base and in such a relative short period of time, you know, when you think about the realm of franchises, right. And how it’s made it such an impact on the MLS in the greater Los Angeles area. but so it’s interesting, you know, you started your career in government and then you go to a private sector and then you work for a family office and now you, you work for an entity like a, I guess it’s similar to a family office, right?

You know, I think a lot of people have somewhat of a misinterpretation of what a sports organization is like to work for.

And I guess LAFC is a bit of an outlier because of their celebrity sort of ownership group to a degree, but in many ways it, many clubs do run like a family office, correct? Right. And, you know, so what’s it been like to work with so many different, I guess, organizational charts, if you will.

Well, from the ownership perspective, we have a very eclectic group of owners. We obviously have our celebrity owners, of course, but the day to day, the managing partners, a wonderful group of gentlemen that, you know, they understand the mission. They totally get what we’re trying to achieve in Los Angeles. As a club, you know, you think about just every facet of the business, they’re in tune with what’s going on, whether it’s technology or player acquisition, whatever it might be.

And so they’ve been very supportive of all the goals and objectives that I’ve set out to build for the organization. And they all come from private equity, entertainment backgrounds, gaming, et cetera. So they get the experience of entertainment and entertaining people and the joy that brings to the masses. And so it’s been good because I think in our head spaces, we’re all aligned with one goal and that is to just bring joy to people at BMO Stadium.

Yeah, that’s great. Yeah. And when you have the support of the entire organization and the ownership group behind that, I’d imagine that makes your life a lot easier when there’s buy -in. You know, I’ve spoken to other people that have had the opposite experience and that that makes for a miserable environment, right? And for sure.

So you had mentioned you had started the position when there was a literal hole in the ground. I can only imagine the undertaking of what it’s like to build a stadium from the ground up and not only from a mere construction standpoint, but an IT infrastructure, someone in technology.

You know, from an experiential standpoint, I can, you know, that’s, that’s nothing compared to a full infrastructure, right? what were some of the challenges and also rewards that you kind of experienced and you know, what, what would you like to share to our listeners about that experience? yeah, I think some of the biggest challenges, frankly, it really just, it came down to timing.

Probably the role that I fill, you know, as the CTO, you know, they could have probably hired it sooner than they did, but I never looked back on it. It was just, you know, I was tasked with getting, you know, the stadium open, by April of 2018. And so I just ran with it.

You know, I spent all pretty much, you know, 20 plus hours a day, no joke, working through the tech stack, working with our partners on integration and deployment, negotiating contracts for new technology that was coming in the building, you know, access control systems, point of sale systems, beacon technology, network connectivity, you name it. Like it was just this nonstop, you know, marathon, frankly, it was, it was a very long one, but it all worked out. You know, there were some things that, that we made decisions on that, you know, we’ve obviously changed.

In fact, one of the metrics I share with folks that ask is, you know, about 93 % of our technology from 2018 has been changed, right? And it’s not that we made, you know, bad decisions or anything in 2018, but you’ve got, you know, technology standards that are what they are then, right? So we’ve,started build out in 2017 and by 2024, things are just aged, right?

So what was best to breed might not be. And so we’re always looking for what’s next. We always wanna be on the pinnacle of our technical operations. We want Bevo Stadium to be very efficient and how we handle crowds, how we get people in the building, in the transactions, you name it.

That’s our focus and it’s all about eliminating the friction that you would get in a modern venue, right? And so we’re just trying to figure those types of things out. But overall, it was a wonderful experience, frankly. Building a stadium was not something on a bucket list I had. I had worked on infrastructure projects in the past, high rises, things like that. But getting to build a stadium just, it gave me this unique skillset that very few people will ever get in technology.

And so I’m very grateful for it. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I can only imagine, you know, having a framed photo of this stadium wherever you go, wherever you live, just looking at that and go, you know, I built that. And that’s got to be a very rewarding and humbling sort of reminder as well. But back to the the sort of advancement of the stadium itself, how important was it for the franchise and yourself to

really press the limit and sort of, you know, be the beacon in the MLS to be the more innovative and technically advanced stadiums throughout the league. And was that a focal point of the organization and of yours or did, you know, what were your sort of value points or like the pillars that you wanted to accomplish? Sure. I would say the club in itself, we always had the mission that we wanted to be unique to ourselves and the community. We were very focused on the community, right?

And if you look at some of our brand ethos, it’s been block by block, street by street, one by one. And we always held true to that. And some people might think it’s goofy or whatever, but for us, we knew that the city of Los Angeles, as an extraordinary number of football fans. People that are, you know, first generation, second generation, Angelino’s people that grew up supporting another club out in the world, wherever that might be. And there was, or is, you know, still there is another club in Southern California.

They’ve never actually played in Los Angeles. They played in Pasadena and Carson, which is great for them. And they’ve won a lot of championships as well, but they didn’t necessarily resonate with the fan base that we’ve got, right? It was a real focal point for us to like embrace all of those folks that grew up living, you know, whether it was Club America or, you know, AC Milan or Barcelona, it could be anybody, right?

Like if you talk to our fan base, if you talk to our supporters, they all grew up loving specific players and…clubs around the world, but it was never necessarily an MLS. And so we, I think we, we hit on that pretty well. you know, it wasn’t, it was a strategy, but it was also us just being genuine to what we wanted the club to be. We wanted it to be all inclusive, for, for everybody in Los Angeles and beyond, frankly. and I think we achieved that, you know, I think as an organization, I think we’ve definitely, done what we can on the pitch, off the pitch.

When you come to Bevo Stadium, there’s things that we’ve focused on over the years where it was really just trying to make the guest experience the best it could be, but not in your face, right? So there’s a lot of technology that we use in the venue today, but it’s not like, you know, I have visitors that come in sometimes and we’ll show them around.

But the technology that they’re seeing, it’s not like, you know, man on the moon type of stuff. Like these are technologies that are just efficient. And the, you think about the guest experience, you have people coming in, there’s, there’s no lines to, you know, to buy food and beverage, things like that. And obviously we still have some lines because we still have traditional models around concessions, but we’re slowly building out autonomous retail.

We’re being very efficient in that approach. We’re also working with Amazon on just walk out. We launched our first location this year. and we’ll have many more in the future. So we’re really excited about how we’re deploying technology, but it’s also not something we’re going to hit people over the head with. Yeah. Yeah. It’s funny that you mentioned that too, because as someone on the vendor marketing side of technology, I sometimes get frustrated when talking to clubs where, you know, I read some of these headlines of in capital X.

You know, expenses and infrastructure investment and, you know, marketing budgets are very different, right? But as a fan, experience the operational technology completely enhances the game day experience where you mentioned access control, like just getting out of the parking lot, getting into the turnstiles with a ticket list system, getting into, you know, scanning a barcode and then.

You know, gatekeeping through concessions, through mobile, you know, technology or cashless payments and things of that nature. So I think that’s really smart. And it just, it really, you know, makes the overall experience more pleasurable. And I completely understand why franchises and organizations invest in that technology.

Because you have to consider that. I mean, it’s not an easy task or investment for a lot of families to, you know, invest the time and the money to attend a game and commit to the experience. And so you really have to value that fan base and the experience and, you know, make it the best and most pleasurable they can, you know? Definitely. Yeah, for sure.

Yeah. So talking to a little bit about the fan experience from a technology standpoint, you know, obviously your supporters club, you know, is a, you know, there it’s an analog experience and there’s there an entity, right? You know, the community and, you know, there’s really no technical involvement that’s that’s needed when you have such a fun, rambunctious and you know, enthusiastic group of people. But what could fans expect to experience?

Any activations or technology Jumbotron related or any sort of experience tech that you guys do at the stadium? Definitely. So, you know, connectivity network connectivity is key to everything that we do. So, you know, we’ve got a very robust Wi -Fi network today.

We’ve got an exceptional DAS with the three major carriers on it. We’re actually building a 5G network as well, an overlay to that DAS. So we’ll have full 5G connectivity at BMO Stadium. And then we’re also working on a next generation Wi -Fi network, as well as a private 5G network for us to do all of our back -of -house operations on. So that’s all stuff in process now. One of our biggest challenges being in Los Angeles is traffic.

Right. And late arriving audiences, which is always a struggle. And so parking. Graphic around BMO stadium is never great. We’re in the Figueroa corridor, which is always chaos. So then you, you bring in an event, whether it’s us or next door at the Coliseum, you know, the exposition park where we’re located, it’s just a very busy bustling place. and parking is always a challenge and a lot of it’s out of our control. So what we’re focused on now, is from your car to the gate, the ability to get in quickly and efficiently, to get to your seat, to transact, right?

So concessions, retail, all those things on the technology side are our big focus over the last few years. And we’ve been doing a lot of piloting and hope to bring everything to market this summer is around biometrics, age verification. Very cool. Payment and ticketing are things that we’ve been piloting. We actually started in 2020 on the ticketing piece.

And of course, all that got slowed down quickly. But we got a couple matches into that season, worked really well. So the idea is opt in, of course, we’re not forcing people to do this. But your face is your ticket, right? And so you just walk in to the venue, you will have the ability to just walk up to a reader, which is on a turnstile or a pedestal, that identifies James, for example, your ticket.

If you have four people with you, you can go in and select four tickets and you’re good to go. Right. So really easy, efficient. and then that same system, what we’re trying to achieve as a customer journey around face. And so you can obviously get in with your face, but then you can also transact. So age verification using your face card on file. So the idea is, you know, you don’t have to pull out your phone. You don’t have to pull out a wallet.

And your transaction’s done. You’d have to show your ID to anybody. You’re, you know, you are, you obviously have to be onboarded to the system. but once you are like that, that, you know, operational flow is so quick. Yeah. And then for folks that choose not to do that, you know, we are a cashless venue as all venues in California are now. and then you can, you know, tap, you know, roughly 73, 74 % of every ticket at BMO stadium is actually NFC.

So people aren’t doing the barcodes as much as they did because that is not efficient, right? Especially in the wrong lighting, et cetera. And we have best debris technology scanning that stuff. And it’s still a struggle for people to scan barcodes. So now they’re more into NFC, which is a great thing. And that’s probably a good example of, you know, 2018 versus 2024, right? You know, it’s insane. Like, yeah, leaps and bounds better now than it was. And then of course, you know, contactless payment. You think about, you know, gosh, I think we’re probably 65, 70 % Apple pay today.

Tabs of people and there’s some Android users as well, but most devices that register on our network is iOS, which is kind of tracks with the LA MSA. But, but yeah, so those are the types of things that we’re doing again. It’s, it’s low key technology that’s very efficient, but it’s not in your face. Like you’re not looking at holograms, we’re not doing a bunch of things around artificial intelligence. You’re not going to float in space. Like it’s just efficient. Right.

Now, would you say that, you know, you probably sit in a different seat in terms of where marketing or maybe corporate partnerships are involved in those type of technologies from a sponsored activation or are you involved in those type of creative or, Nicole? Okay. You, you also engage in that.

Absolutely. when it comes to the tech stack, the technology has to be the focal point of the activation, right? And so for us, the technology will always be the priority. And if there is a marketing or sponsorship opportunity on the backend of the technology being the right technology for the venue, then we’ll pursue it.

But we flipped that on its head a little bit because most venues, partnerships kind of dictate what we’re going to do, but it doesn’t always really align with anything that organizations are actually trying to do. And you hear a lot of horror stories about like, you know, partnerships brought in X, Y, Z, and they have all these different things, but nothing actually works the way they thought it was going to. And it’s just a big mess. So we just, we decided at the very beginning with ownership that we weren’t going to do any of those things. And it served us very well. Okay.

Interesting. Yeah, and I think it’s important too that, you know, there’s a lot of, you know, the startup community, especially when it comes to experiential technology, always find sports as a perfect target to sort of, and I think sports conversely target startup companies to sort of experiment and sort of do a lot of proof of concept when it comes to this type of fan engagement tech and

There’s a lot of risk reward, obviously. And I think when you work with these new companies or emerging companies that maybe the technology isn’t vetted or they haven’t really proven out the reputation or the workflow, there is a lot of risk. And I’m forever tainted attending a sports game because of my business.

And I can’t attend a game without walking a concourse for an hour before I finally become a fan again. But…There’s time and time again where I just see dead devices throughout a concourse. And it’s, you know, to me, that’s an opportunity because I can sell our services and use it as, as a selling point to our expertise.

But, to your point, I mean, I think it’s, it’s an unfortunate reality when it comes to technology, because, you know, even the advanced technology, like our phones, I mean, things happen. but especially when it comes to high use environmental concerns and, you know, just, you know, bespoke technology, you know, there’s a lot of risks that is involved and, you know, you don’t want to have a down asset, especially when it’s tied to a partner.

And when you talk about guest experience, when you have something that is maybe a part of your marketing collateral and fans are looking to experience something and it’s a blank screen or a dead headset, you know, it’s not a good look, you know, you don’t want to be exposed to that.

So, I feel like L .A.’s having a moment now, especially when it comes to, you know, its sports facilities and, you know, all of the construction that’s going on, but as well as, you know, some of the world’s largest sports and entertainment events coming through town. Can you talk to us about any events that BMO is hosting, whether it’s COPPA or World Cup related or maybe anything in between? Not really sure, frankly, where things are going to end up with with the World Cup.

I know for the Olympics, USC, Expedition Park will be part of the Olympic Village. So we will participate at some level as a venue. What that actually ends up being, we don’t know yet, but we’ll be very interesting to see how that plays out. I know LA over the next few years does have a lot of major events coming and some phenomenal venues here as well. So we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Cool. And how would you say the community is between the facilities? Do you guys collaborate often? Do you guys work in a silo? I mean, is there a community with all of the development that’s happening in the sports and entertainment world? There is, you know, I think we all have different touch points within like our organization. From a technology perspective, yes, we’re pretty dialed in with each other. You know, especially when you think about.

You know, like for, for me, I work a lot with the guys over at SoFi Dodger Stadium, crypto .com arena, even the Intuit Dome, right? So that whole crew, like we all compare notes. We, we have conversations about, technology and kind of where, where the market’s going, what, what our customers expect, et cetera. We like to bounce ideas off of each other as well. Awesome. Awesome. Well,

I’m excited to hear that the SEAT conference is coming back online or has come back online. I know that you, I think you had formerly been involved in that conference, right? In the past, yeah. We attended in the past. Didn’t really participate in an active way. Just kind of, you know, step back and check things out a little bit. But I think in its new format, we’re really interested and how that plays out. I know LAFC as an organization, we have a few people that will be attending and participating at some level.

We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like. Yeah, same. It’s a, it was, it’s as a starting business, it was a great way for us to sort of involve ourselves in the community and get to know some of our colleagues on the circuit, so to speak, on the vendor side. So our good friends at, access, for example, but,

Christian, well, this was great. What we like to do and the show is anything that you’re comfortable. If our listeners would like to connect with you online, whether that’s your social media profiles or your, your LinkedIn or any contact information you’d like to share, please do so now or you don’t have to, you’re not obligated, but. Yeah, hit me up anytime. LinkedIn and Instagram. That’s where I do all my stuff. In fact, I actually have what your inducted business over Instagram. All right. All right. Slide into Christian’s DM. And okay. What’s your handle there, Christian? I think it’s at Christian Lau for, for both LinkedIn and, and Instagram. Okay. Perfect.

All right. Well, thank you, every Christian. thank you very much. We are at our time here and thank you to our listeners. This concludes the latest episode of the MVP interactive podcast. And until next time, we’ll talk soon.

Innovating Fan Experience: CTO Christian Lau Discusses LAFC's Technological Advancements


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