In a city where it is frequently said that there is only one gig in town when it comes to professional sports, Los Angeles Football Club have been on a mission to prove otherwise.
Since their Major League Soccer (MLS) debut in April 2018, the club has sold out every fixture at their 22,000-seat home in Exposition Park. That the Los Angeles Chargers, who play in the hype machine that is the National Football League (NFL) and are about to move into the 70,000-capacity SoFi Stadium, struggled to fill the 27,000-seater Dignity Health Sports Park down the road in Carson last season only highlights what an achievement that is.
No one - yet - is comparing LAFC to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Los Angeles Lakers, but with the US co-hosting the Fifa World Cup in 2026 the country’s interest in soccer is likely to heighten further - and MLS is anticipating a new wave of engagement for its teams.
For the clubs themselves, being able to reap the benefits of that starts with having solid foundations; an established club is in a far stronger position to attract new fans than a team who might be leaving town. This is where LAFC’s data-led approach to marketing puts them ahead of their rivals who have been around far longer.
Rich Orosco, LAFC’s executive vice president of brand and community, has successfully overseen the club’s bid to establish itself as challengers for LA’s soccer crown. He cites their approach to social media as a key factor in that process.
“Originally, with the club, going back now four to five years, we created our brand on social,” he says.
That is not just bluster or marketing spin; LAFC did exactly that. The club’s name, colours and even stadium design were influenced by digital campaigns - backed up by in-person interaction - to help fans of a team that did not yet exist feel close to the club.
On the pitch, LAFC begun this season in promising fashion. Having reached the MLS Conference Finals in 2019, they were unbeaten in their opening two fixtures at a packed-out Banc of California Stadium. Then coronavirus struck.
Having performed credibly in the MLS is Back bubble tournament in Florida, losing on penalties in the quarterfinals to Orlando City, it is perhaps not a surprise that LAFC’s first regular season home game without fans saw them lose 2-0 to local rivals LA Galaxy. The supporters make the club what it is.
As the club sought to build a fanbase from scratch in 2014, LAFC’s original sales pitch was based on creating trust amongst a set of fans waiting to be won over. Asking them to participate in the new club’s project and then rewarding that faith by delivering on promises regarding matchday atmosphere, winning play and a tight fan culture has set a template for the league’s latest expansion teams.
Now it is about asking those established LAFC fans to become advocates for the club within the city and further afield.
Orosco explains: “When you literally go into bars where we know soccer fans are and get to know them and say, ‘Look, you have an opportunity to build something with us, together. This is real. This is happening in your backyard. You can join us, and you can help us craft what a legacy will be for your grandchildren,’ that’s really powerful.”
From that drive emerged the 3252, LAFC’s ultras who light up the stadium’s safe standing area and guide the fan culture. LAFC have played a hands-off role in that organisation - the 3252 has its own board, president and charity arm, but in return for that trust the fan group provides organic marketing in the form of a stadium atmosphere that an increasing number of people want to be a part of.
“[The 3252 is] the heartbeat of our stadium, and they are why many people come,” says Orosco. “Now, we just need to get more and more people to experience that, appreciate it and feel that same culture, so that when you come to our stadium in ten years, the entire stadium is singing the same things because it’s been a tradition for so long.”
Fostering that relationship with the supporters came from a deep understanding of the people they were trying to engage. Here is where LAFC get a little help from data tools such as Zoomph, a digital engagement measurement platform the club added to their toolkit when it became apparent their previous analytics service was not giving Ryan Bishara, their senior vice president of business and data strategy, the level of detail he wanted.
“Zoomph came in because they saw what we were looking for and saw it as an opportunity to be, frankly, at the cutting edge of everything that [sports] properties need,” says Bishara
The couple of months spent developing a test product together indicated that Zoomph had an API capable of providing the depth and detail LAFC wanted, to the extent that Bishara describes signing the partnership as a “no-brainer”.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, LAFC had sold out every home game since their debut in 2018
“The data that we are provided now from Zoomph allows us to have better clarity on why things work or don’t work,” he explains. “For example, being able to look at and categorise every single post and piece of content that we create into categories of different types of content, or analyse it photo versus video, or looking at it by subject matter, or look at it sponsored/non-sponsored, or look at it by different timing related to matchdays. All those different things combined - you’re smarter.”
Zoomph now informs part of LAFC’s weekly analytical ‘think tank’, where the heads of ticketing, digital and data review all supporter touchpoints and see where value can be found. On the content creation side, the platform is also used to test new ideas.
“Our team comes prepared with insights about the data that we’re tracking that allows us to showcase how we can make changes,” says Colin Kelly, LAFC’s vice president of digital, regarding their weekly content huddles. “We’ll even prescribe recommendations like, ‘OK, over the course of the next week or two, let’s do the following things different to see how it changes as maybe more impactful or not.’ And we start the A/B testing and kind of get a feel for how different patterns emerge based on changing behaviour with the way we’re creating our content.”
Their content is popular. LAFC’s total social media following of more than 1.3 million ranks them seventh in MLS, ahead of several franchises who have been in the league since its inception.
That strong digital following and loyal fanbase also makes LAFC an attractive proposition for partners. Ahead of their first season the club signed a high-profile shirt sponsorship and local digital broadcast rights deal with Google’s streaming service YouTube TV. When MLS moved to allow sleeve patch sponsors, LAFC were also an early mover. Retail chain Target were signed up for the inventory in a deal reported by The Athletic to be worth as much as US$2 million per year.
Overall, LAFC boast more than 50 partners across their sponsorship tiers, which is where Zoomph is also used to provide the data on servicing those contracts. For Kristen Kuhn, LAFC’s senior vice president of brand and partnership marketing, and her team, the platform allows them to assess the performance of a partner’s social assets to both show value in the various programmes and look for areas to improve.
“We are now able to analyse and truly understand the benefit and reach of each content piece we create that is sponsor related,” Kuhn says. “We are better able to utilise our resources to make sure our content pieces have maximum impact for our partners.”
LAFC use Zoomph to organise and provide the data to the club's extensive partnership portfolio
As well as helping to optimise LAFC’s content creation, being able to point to clear data also allows the club to have honest conversations with partners when something is not working with their digital activations, correcting a course that could lead to an unnecessary end of that relationship.
“In talking to partners, we have the granular data for each post and for each partner content piece,” Kuhn says. “We have the ability to share with them very detailed metrics, and then work together to make sure we are aligned on specific strategies that achieve all of our goals.”
That irrefutable Zoomph data has also been a benefit as LAFC have felt the impact of Covid-19. In some respects the pandemic has made no real change to how the club approaches managing its partnerships. As Bishara insists, the club was going to be providing this level of attention to detail regardless of circumstance, but it also allows LAFC to demonstrate why partners should maintain their investments.
“The biggest thing is that we were able to realise that this was even more of a reason to use it during the Covid [lockdown],” he says. “In fact, it’s actually demonstrated to many brands that we were able to drive similar or even greater value of reach and engagement over the course of a window of time where you would expect it to be significantly down.
“It’s been our saving grace, honestly. Because if we didn’t have it, we’d have so many more questions to answer.”