The emergence of venues like Roxy Ball Room and Flight Club in recent years has given the public a chance to mix social events with sports they love. It was only a matter of time before football got in on the act, too, as the country’s most watched and talked about sport.
TOCA Social has thrown its doors open to the public in London. Located in The O2, they provide ‘lively spot with a cutting edge vibe offering American-themed meals, plus immersive football games’.
Football League World exclusively caught up with founder, Eddie Lewis, earlier in December to discuss the unique experience TOCA Social offers.
“The original concept and company was founded on the training side of the business,” he explained. “Fast-forward to what we’ve done with the concept around social is really creative.
“We are the first real entertainment and dining experience built around these football-based interactive games. I think that for the public – considering the launch we’ve had at the O2 – it’s something they’ve been yearning for.”
For years now sports like table tennis, golf, ten-pin bowling and darts have provided hubs to socialise and show off skills.
What is TOCA Social all about, then? Is it following that blueprint?
Lewis explained: “You’re taking the best parts of football, whether you are a player or a fan, and we’ve been able to recreate these incredible elements: hitting a volley, a side-foot finish or a chance to take a great touch. You’re surrounded by your friends, have the chance to have some incredible food and cocktails. That’s a really powerful combination.
“As a result, it’s why the vibe and the energy around the place is so great.
“There are plenty of examples of these experiential places that are emerging, but there’s nothing that has ever been around football. Truthfully, I think the reason is that it’s not easy.
“We spent so much time on the training side developing this product, it’s just been incredibly engaging. As much as players wanted to improve their skills, there was always people hanging around the studios wanting to have a go because it was so engaging.
“We have this engaging experience and the team we’ve got in the UK have taken it and ran with it. They’ve created an incredible experience and environment.”
TOCA Social’s popularity is already growing, too, with former Premier League footballer Jermaine Jenas and the MOTDx team there earlier in 2021. Plans are in place for more top-flight footballers to visit, including Wilfred Zaha and Michail Antonio.
View this post on Instagram
It’s proving to be popular with a variety of people from ex-professionals and freestylers to influencers and the general public.
“There have been different testing environments along the way,” Lewis continued. “There was a lot of time and effort spent in making sure the experience was authentic for Premier League players like Wilf Zaha or Michail Antonio, as well as engaging for people who might never have played football before.”
There’s a significant focus at TOCA on making the social side of a trip there equally as important as the football.
A modern Americana menu hits the spot, as does a wide range of cocktails and mocktails, plus all your other standard drinks.
“It’s an important piece,” Lewis enthused. “The experience itself has to be there, but what makes the place is the environment.
“We didn’t want to serve any kind of food, we wanted to make sure that the cocktails were first-class, there was a modern Americana menu that resonated with our guests and that people would want to stay to eat or to have another drink.
“The chicken wings are amazing. In America, we take our wings pretty seriously and I don’t know how Ross Clarke (Head of Food & Beverage) has done it, but it’s out of control. There’s also a rum drink (The Red Card) that’s a quality cocktail.”
View this post on Instagram
The American was cultured player before retirement in 2010, playing for Fulham, Preston North End, Leeds United and Derby County, as well as shining in the MLS.
The 47-year-old founded the TOCA Football training academy back in 2016, focusing on the ‘small ball’ game, a method he used as his career in the professional game shaped.
“I used to train with a tennis ball machine and fire these balls at myself to work on my touch or sharpen up my skills. As I was retiring, because I found the concept so helpful, I wanted to bring that to the footballing world.
“In order to do that, though, we had to make it a little bit more soccer specific. A tennis ball was great because it was small and hard to control, but I couldn’t kick it, pass it or shape it the way you would a normal football. We knew the ball needed to be a little bigger, but still as small as possible. We landed on what is currently the ‘TOCA’ ball, which is still small and harder to control, but at the same time, you don’t have to compromise any technique.”
A trip to TOCA Social gives you a taste of that concept.
“It’s based on the same technology,” Lewis continued. “Obviously we have slowed down the balls quite a bit so it’s a gentle delivery. There is easy, medium and hard settings, but the idea isn’t to challenge anyone too much. We want people to be able to control it then strike it and, given there may be a few scoops involved, we want to make sure it’s not too challenging.”
View this post on Instagram
TOCA Social’s debut venue is at The O2 in London, yet it will not remain exclusive to the capital. Birmingham’s Bullring will get a taste in early 2023 if plans fall into place, whilst Lewis is hoping to take things further north, having loved his time at Leeds United in the EFL 15 years ago.
Lewis outlined: “I can’t say exactly when, but you know my love for Leeds and Leeds United, so it’s a big priority for me. There are a number of factors that go into where we can eventually open these things up, but we will be there and it’ll be my favourite venue.”
Good news for football fans across the country, then, as their sport finally moves into an exciting market alongside some well established chains.