LOS ANGELES -- With the eyes of Los Angeles and the rest of MLS on them, LAFC treated the crowd at Banc of California Stadium on Sunday to a pregame rite that brought together similar traditions around the world with a Los Angeles twist.
“These falcons are fierce, fearless, regal and strong,” said club president Tom Penn. “It’s our gameday ritual.”
During the open house at the newly completed ground last week, Penn used halftime of LAFC’s televised match against Montreal to introduce Olly the falcon to a crowd of several thousand.
“Before she was five months old, she flew 210 miles an hour,” Ken Miknuk, LAFC’s in-house falconer said. “Our primary goal with her is to slow her down and keep her within the confines of a little stadium.”
Named after Olvera street, the birthplace of Los Angeles, Olly is a female Red Naped Shaheen Falcon — or the “Bugatti of the bird of prey world,” as Miknuk calls the breed.
After unveiling a video that caught onlookers off-guard, the falcon embarked on a choreographed free-flying routine leaving mouths in the crowd agape several minutes later.
What just happened? Did LAFC get a mascot? Was this a gimmick?
“We definitely didn’t want a mascot, which is somebody running around in a furry outfit,” Penn explained to MLSsoccer.com. “With the wing in the crest and the fact that we represent flight, that we represent speed, we got into this obsession about what sort of bird would be on brand, what would be appropriate.”
GM John Thorrington voiced his admiration for peregrine falcons, a species native to downtown Los Angeles but restricted from exhibition under federal regulations.
“John was the one that said, ‘That’s on brand. That’s how I want our team to play, I want to be fierce, I want to be fast, and I want to be [intimidating],” Penn said. “Then we had the challenge of trying to find a falconer.”
Birds of prey for teams that play
Live birds are no novelty to sports. Numerous college American football programs around the US — along with clubs like Benfica, Lazio and Crystal Palace in the soccer world — fly eagles before competition.
The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, who share CenturyLink Field with Sunday's visiting Sounders, are famous for Taima the Hawk. But Miknuk, a 50-year professional falconry veteran (37 of them as a Master Falconer), draws a distinction between those flights and what will take place during home games at Banc of California Stadium.
“The Seattle Seahawks are flying an African Auger buzzard," he says. "It flies from the tunnel to his glove at about maybe 20 miles per hour and they walk off, same thing with the [various] eagles.”
LAFC's newborn falcons | Courtesy of LAFC
Involved with falconry since age 9, Miknuk’s voice ramps up a notch when he describes the full-throttle experience he’s spent a year working toward with Olly and the three other birds LAFC acquired shortly after birth. (Two are altai saker falcons Fig and Mel — short for famous LA streets Figueroa and Melrose. The other is a Barbary falcon named Sunny, after Sunset Boulevard.)
“Now what we’re going to have is the world flying extravaganza," he says. "It’s going to be a free flying, lure stooping show, which we will keep down around 80 miles an hour, which no one has ever done.”
The flight culminates with some of the planet’s fastest creatures snatching a lure embossed with their opponents’ crest, no easy task Miknuk insists, but one he’s not doing alone. The patriarch heads a full-blown falconer dynasty that includes son Jason and grandson Ethan, who’ve all contributed to creating the program.
Conservation education takes flight
Miknuk talks conservation with Olly at a local school. | Courtesy of LAFC
These falconers will continue the family craft in the coming decades. It’s with that future in mind that LAFC and the Miknuk’s committed to the second component of their initiative.
“There are so many children in exposition park because of the museums,” Penn said. “We will have an educational program at and around our stadium and then Ken will visit schools throughout the community.”
LA’s native peregrine falcon will be one of several majestic creatures Miknuk hopes can impress conservation upon the youth of the city.
“To educate the future of humanity, as I like to put it, of the importance of the environment," he says. "That is what I will actually be spending most of my time on. I think that’s the most important thing I could ever do here. Flying center pitch is the cool part.”
The falconer is new to soccer, but by partnering with the club he believes he'll finally be able to make the impact he’s always hoped the world’s fastest creatures can have on the next generation.
“The community outreach program is a fantasy I’ve had since I started my company,” Miknuk explained. “In terms of the magnitude, no one has ever done anything this big.”
In the several years leading up to LAFC’s inaugural home match, the club has remained focused on captivating the attention of the millennial demographic — and for good reason.
Whether on social media or in The 3252 supporters section, keeping that cohort engaged is tantamount to the expansion side’s success off the field. Ahead of the home opener, however, it’s clear the club also is focused on the youngest Angelenos.
On Sunday, Miknuk, whose state permit for exhibitions is fittingly No. 3253, flew Olly on her first birthday.
“That’s really what this is about,” Penn said in closing. “The kids.”