Innovative Locations: TOCA Social’s Zach Shor on Reimagining a World-Loved Sport as an Entertainment Destination

TOCA Social is the world’s first soccer-based entertainment concept, opening its first venue in London summer of 2021. Eden Ames of ARCO/Murray (currently the design-build partner of TOCA Social’s Headquarters in Dallas) recently sat down with Zach Shor, SVP of TOCA Social U.S., to discuss the upcoming concept’s vision.

Watch the whole episode here:

Zach Shor:  I am not a soccer fan, but I also wasn’t a golfer when I was at Topgolf, and not a gamer, working at GameStop. What drew me to TOCA Social and TOCA in general as a business is, first and foremost, the people. There are some really phenomenal people on the team. When you have the right people, you can make most concepts work. But I think what’s really exciting about TOCA and TOCA Social is just how quickly the sport of soccer is growing. I’m probably the only person in the whole company that doesn’t have a Premier League team that they follow. So, whether I like soccer or not, I think it’s hard to deny the gravity of the sport internationally and the growth of it domestically. So figuring out a really fun way to build experiences around a quickly growing sport that’s got a great following. That was the unique opportunity for me and what drew me to the business.

For those who don’t know TOCA, if you could give us a quick history of the TOCA Football Group, the parent company of TOCA Social and TOCA Sport. How did it start and what does it look like today?

ZS: TOCA Football is the parent company and there are two business units. One unit is what we call TOCA Sport. The TOCA Sport business is really built around one-on-one training. That was founded by a guy named Eddie Lewis, who is a little bit of a cult hero in the soccer world, being one of the few American players to go and have a lot of success in the Premier League and come back to the States. He created some really cool technology around training that that business utilizes in the US. It’s about smart goals that track the speed and the launch angle, and other stats specifically for training. Then we’ve got something called a Touch Trainer, which is for lack of a better term, a ball launcher, right? Something that either rolls the ball, lobs it to you if you want to just Happy Gilmore it. They’ll throw it at you at 55 miles an hour. So those two things together create a really unique training experience for folks who want to get better at soccer, whether you’re six years old, or 66 years old.

Then the second business unit is TOCA Social, which is when I’m heading up in the US. So we took some of the technology from TOCA Sport, built some other cool things around it and we’ve created a unique gamified experience around that technology and around the sport of soccer. If you’ve ever played in a golf simulator, you’ll be fairly familiar with the setup at TOCA Social. We have what we call our suite or our box that’s a projector screen at the end. It’s got the Touch Trainer ball launcher behind the screen and that rolls the ball to you, or lobs it, depending on the difficulty you pick. That’s how you play the game– you kick it to the screen, and whether you’re shooting a goal or aiming at targets or even if you and I are playing, there’s a selfie camera so your face might be on a target that I aim at. So we have a couple different games we can play there, but what’s really exciting about the TOCA Social experience is that it’s a physical to digital experience, so your imagination is the limit.? Any kind of gaming experience you can think of you, you can create, and that’s what makes it a lot of fun.

So then, behind that box is a socializing area that can fit, you know, one to 12 people. We’re building a really great F&B offering behind the whole experience. So you come with your friends or family or with co-workers, and you can have a drink, have some food, play some games, and hopefully, at a minimum, have fun while also gaining a little bit of appreciation for the sport.

I love how you’re taking the soccer technique and using it for different kinds of games. Tell us about when you walk into a TOCA Social—what does a guest experience walking in?

ZS: So we’re still in the process of designing that for the US, but in the UK, they’ve done some really cool unique things, like an entry tunnel. For anyone who watches sports, you see the athletes running out, running through the tunnel out to the field. We’ve recreated that experience in TOCA Social, so you go through and hear cheering and clapping from the second you walk into the facility. It’s one of the many “surprise and delight” moments. Guests can visit both by reservation and walk-in. They can rent shoes if they’re in heels or flip-flops, kind of like at the bowling alley. You can hang out at the bar and wait for your box to get ready, or you’ll go straight to your box and start playing. We’re hoping it’ll be a really unique experience through and through, but it’s still a work in progress here in the States.  We’re looking to the UK for inspiration, but we also have some really unique things we’re planning on here, too.

Do you think there will be any crossovers between the existing brand of TOCA Sport and TOCA Social?

ZS: Yeah, I think eventually they may end up dovetailing because with every TOCA Social we open and every TOCA Sport facility we open, we’ll start to get more and more cross pollenization. Who’s to say you couldn’t come to TOCA Social, and work on your goal kicks. Or who’s to say you couldn’t go to a TOCA Sport, join an adult three-on-three league and have a beer after your game, right? And so, I think there are elements of both that will eventually make it into both concepts. But we really have to flesh out and learn what TOCA deSocial wants to be, before we start doing some of that stuff.

What kind of expectations are there growth-wise for the first venue opening in London? And what do you think is going to trigger that expansion plan to the US where you really start ramping up and rolling a lot of these out in the States?

ZS: It’s sort of a two-prong thing. A lot of the learnings from the UK are going to guide us here in the States. We have very high expectations of the O2 in London when it opens. We all expect it to do really well. We’re going to be starting user-testing here in Dallas in our headquarters– we’ve built a TOCA Social box here and we’ll be running folks through that experience and getting feedback. So, assuming the O2 opens really well, we get really positive feedback on user-testing, both of which we expect, then we’re going to start growing in both markets.

Can you share a little bit about your process for user-testing? I’m sure there are plenty of differences between launching a concept in the UK compared to here in the US, especially with something like soccer, where there’s a very different cultural perception of the sport. What are you guys looking to learn most in the feedback you’re collecting?

ZS: Yeah, for sure. In the UK, it’s embedded in their DNA, right? It’s a sport that everybody plays growing up, whereas here in the States, everybody knows what soccer is, but not everybody played growing up, not everybody watches it. It’s not a part of our cultural DNA like it is over there. So there are some questions that aren’t dissimilar from when Topgolf first launched where we go “Hey, golf is a really difficult sport with a high barrier to entry. Will people want to be entertained while swinging a club?”. In our case, it’s this question of whether people want to be entertained while they’re doing an unfamiliar activity, like kicking a soccer ball. And so we’re hoping to just to observe the interaction between the user-testing guests and the actual game, and make sure that people enjoy it and want to come back. We’ll be asking every question you can imagine, like what would you want to be eating while you’re playing this game? We haven’t designed the menu here yet, so there’s still a lot of growth we can have there. How often would you come back? What other kinds of games would you want to see? Right now, our games are single session competitive, maybe not socially competitive games. Would you want to see games where you could continue your progress at a future session? We’re really just hoping to keep our eyes open, keep our heads on straight and learn from the people who will hopefully become our guests in the future.

Any specifics around how you think the game might look a different here than in the UK?

ZS: We’ve done a lot of quantitative research on this and on how people view the sport and view entertainment. And there are really one or two big takeaways that I think we’re going to work on here, and the first one is in the interior design. Here– I keep drawing parallels to Topgolf but it was a large part of my career– if you walked into a Topgolf, and it was just green jackets and golf tees and pictures of old golfers, well if you don’t like golf, that might be kind of an intimidating experience for you. We’re saying with TOCA Social, if you walk in, and it’s just all these Premier League teams that you’ve never heard of, and all these soccer players you’ve never seen before, as a non-soccer fan, I’d be like, hey, this isn’t for me. So, I’ve already turned myself off before I’ve even tried the game, which is supposed to be an entertainment experience driven by the sport of soccer, not a soccer experience, per se, right?

Then the second thing will be the game. The average UK citizen is probably better at kicking a ball than the average US citizen. So are the games too difficult? Do we need to bring it back to basics and take a game like horse that everybody’s played in P.E. class but for basketball and adapt it to be an easier point of entry for the game? So those are two things that we’re anticipating to modify for, but at the end of the day, everybody just wants to smile and laugh. Everybody wants a cold beer, a good cocktail, or some good food. People aren’t inherently that different, regardless of whether you’re in the UK or France, or Morocco or the US. We all want to be social. We all want to have a good time. That’ll never change.

Are there still some elements you anticipate borrowing from the UK as far as interior design goes?

ZS: The UK team has done a really great job. They are like 20-25 people over there in the London office, who have done a really great job making the space feel playful and accessible. I think we’re going to really borrow that playfulness and bring it over here. Our team is really focused on the interstitial spaces, right? The surprise and delight moments– is there a red button on a wall that you press that prints out a random cocktail that you need to try? And you hand that to the bartender, he makes it for you. What are other elements of play that we can inject into the space that don’t pigeonhole us into being a soccer concept. We want to create things people are going to talk about and really enjoy.

Are there other concepts that you guys have looked at outside of the UK’s upcoming TOCA Social location that you find inspirational?

ZS: Yeah, there are a lot of concepts that are doing cool things. I think we’re about to enter into an era of location-based entertainment. Especially, coming out of COVID, I think we’re going to see a huge boom there. So we’re paying close attention to folks like Puttshack, who, you know, a lot of those folks are ex-Topgolfers that we know really well. They’ve created a really amazing product, and a great experience. Flight Club, right? Similar concept around darts. Really anybody that’s utilizing technology to amplify an activity, we’re paying attention to because they create really fun experiences. And obviously, you got to pay homage to Topgolf for taking a sport that is a little harder to get into and democratizing it in a way that I don’t think anybody’s ever done. So we’re pulling inspiration from everybody else out there. Because they’re all doing something right.

What do you think TOCA Social brings to the location-based entertainment space that makes it different from the other concepts you’re looking at, besides the soccer-based game itself?

I keep saying surprise and delight– we didn’t coin that term. We’re designing it as a place you want to come back to. If you go to a place two or three times and it’s the same, the likelihood of you going back a third or fourth time is fairly low, no matter how much you like the game or the experience. And I think those kind of interstitial moments, whether it’s a cocktail button on the door or, maybe instead of there being bar snacks, there’s a crane you use and you pick what bar snack you get—little things like that just make people go, “This is weird, and kind of fun. I wonder if I come back in a month if there’ll be something different.” I mean, one of the Puttshack holes is a prize spinner, and to me, that’s really fun because it’s a departure from a typical mini golf hole, but also because it’s going to be different every time.

So yeah, maybe one time, you get a cocktail, the next time you might get a free burger or a free game or a car, who knows, right? That’s the kind of stuff that’s really fun. That’s the sort of experience that we want to try to emulate where every little nook and cranny, every little corner, there’s going to be something weird and something fun and something authentic and unique.

As you’re thinking about where TOCA Social grows, what do you see as being that perfect site for future TOCA Socials, and how that search looks different here than in the UK?

ZS: Yeah, I think the biggest difference is, folks in the UK tend to be more okay socializing in malls and shopping centers. They’re looking at some of the larger gravitational developments that I think just haven’t quite gotten there in the US. Like, putting a TOCA Social in a mall right now in the US is something that would make me a little bit nervous. Just because I don’t know if people want to stay at a mall until two in the morning, right? So at the moment, we’re heavily focused on urban sites. We’re looking at anything between 30 and 40,000 square feet, because the boxes are pretty big. They’re about 14 feet wide, by 12 feet tall, and they’re 38 feet long. Column spacing is really important to us, ceiling clear heights are really important to us. But we’re very focused on urban or suburban density nodes. Thinking about Chicago, around Oakbrook, that’s suburban. It’s out of the city. But it’s a pretty dense suburban node, and we’d be interested to look at stuff around there. But then in the city, it’s the West Loop and Fulton Market, River North and all the areas everybody knows.

We’re fairly flexible right now. Even before we have our first unit in the States, we’re looking at the top 20-25 MSAs, and we’re looking to build a really healthy pipeline so that when the O2 is successful and our user-testing is successful, we can hit go and move as quickly as we need to move.

That’s interesting about mall spaces, because it seems like other concepts are talking about how there’s opportunity in these big open spaces available right now. But it’s an important point that you have to think about, where are people going to want to spend their time, especially if it’s late into the evening?

ZS: Yeah, and I think that could change culturally. It’s something that I want to see change before I am a part of the change, though.

So, we’re calling these game spaces boxes, right– how many boxes on average are you guys hoping to have in each venue? And do you see that kind of like fluctuating, depending on the space? What would be the minimum?

ZS: We really like to have 28-30 boxes minimum, but once we open the O2 and learn from that, and open something here and learn from that, maybe there’s a smaller format, where we can open with 15 or 18 boxes. But until we learn, we’d like to see 28 as a minimum. And we’ve done designs with up to 34 to 36 boxes. It’s a capacity utilization business, so the more boxes the better as long as you’re in the right spot.

What percentage do the boxes end up making up of the whole space compared to the kitchen area, the bar, etc.?

ZS: The boxes probably take up 60% of the space. Of the 40,000 feet, they’re probably a good 20 to 25,000 feet. Think like the equivalent of an 18-wheeler, like a trailer crate of space. They’re big, but, you know, we’re always looking to improve that experience, too, whether it’s a smaller box or a side-by-side box. There’s a lot of innovation that can still be done.

Generally, how long is gameplay for each of those games? Or how long do you think people in their party groups would hang out for their reservation?

ZS: So in the UK, I think they’ve got it set up in 60- or 90-minute reservations. The games are very quick, I think in an hour, you can probably play three or four games in a group of six or seven people. But you know, we might find that people want to stay and hang out. And maybe we start with the two-hour reservation. So, it’s all an evolution.

What would you say are the risks involved with a concept specifically like yours, and how do you mitigate them?

ZS: Well the first thing is creating an experience that people will want to do, right? It sounds really stupid to say it like that, but I actually don’t view location-based entertainment as the risk. It’s “Do people want to entertain themselves while playing soccer?” That’s the biggest risk. And the way we’re mitigating that is we’re going to see what happens in the UK. And we’re going to do a lot of user-testing here in Dallas,  grabbing groups from every walk of life and getting as much feedback as we can. On the games, on the menu, on the interior design.

That brings us to the last question—what knowledge would you want to impart to entrepreneurs  who are entering the space of location-based entertainment given your experience at TOCA Social and before?

ZS: Don’t get caught in analysis paralysis. Don’t overthink it, get 80% of the information and make the decision. I think this holds a lot of people back, and this isn’t just entertainment. If you need 100% of the information, you’re never going to get it. No decisions are going to be perfect, and those who are willing to make the big decisions and make them with as much information as they can get, they’re the ones that are first to market. They’re the ones that will create experiences and create situations where they’re not afraid to fail.

Get as much information as you can, make a decision, and go do it. Stuff is going to get screwed up, you’re going to mess some stuff up. Nobody’s perfect. We expect to mess a lot of stuff up. But the key is you learn from it, you make it better and just go do it. I mean, if we waited for 100% of the information, we’d be opening our TOCA Social in 2026. It doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes you just gotta hit go.

Zach, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate your time and all your insight.

ZS: Yeah, no, thank you. Love doing this.