The Perfect Score

Selecting the right scoreboard and timing systems for your needs

By Kelli Anderson

Go to any pro sporting event, and you're sure to be wowed by the latest scoreboard displays—from full-color-live-action video capturing spectator-pleasing crowd shots and instant replays to impressive animated graphics—all while still getting the essential game-related information.

It's a far cry from the days of manually changed numbers or clicky electro-mechanical relays. Scoreboards still provide the essential elements of the score, clock and period but, with the advent of more sophisticated technology, can now function also as entertainment, a practice tool for educators and coaches, and even a revenue-generator. Knowing your own programming and facility needs and understanding what scoreboard products offer will help in the selection process.

INCANDESCENT AND LED

Today, the two most popular scoreboards are the incandescent and LED (light emitting diode). Although both technologies have been available since the '70s, it has only been since the '90s that the LED scoreboards have come into their own when the brightness and viewing angle of the LEDs were greatly improved. Prior to the improvements, the LED had more limited applications, while the incandescent dominated the scoreboard industry.

Pros and cons within the two varieties are considerable. Incandescents are still highly favored for their low cost and long life, with some scoreboards still ticking after 30 years of use. However, incandescents become costly over time when power sources and maintenance costs are factored into the equation. And when bulbs burn out at the wrong time or are poorly maintained, scoring information can become downright impossible to read.

"It's a lower cost purchase up front," says Dan Bierschback, sports products engineering manager of a scoreboard company. "But if you look at the lifetime costs, the incandescent is more because you have to swing that ladder up, and you have to also bring in a heavier power source to run an incandescent board."

An LED uses 1/10 of the electricity needed for an incandescent bulb, lasts longer, and its solid-state design requires little to no maintenance (read: no lamps to screw in). They are an all-around performer for indoor, outdoor, daytime and nighttime with their ability to adjust brightness from the scoreboard console. Their technology allows a wide variety of viewing displays and adaptable uses from single-line scrolling messages to full-blown matrix products with programmable displays for different sports and applications.

But LEDs have their dark side, too. The upfront cost, although coming down, is still prohibitive for some buyers, and the brightness of an LED board can fade over time—albeit, decades. In addition, not all LEDs are created equal. A good dot pattern will appear seamless, but the dot pattern of some designs can make digits and wording appear, well, dotty.


OPTING FOR CO-OPS

For Scott Hardeman, athletic supervisor for the Community Activity Center in Grapevine, Texas, buying a scoreboard for the community center would ordinarily have involved the time-consuming and costly process of putting out bids to various vendors. But thanks to an online purchasing co-op's bidding service at Buyboards.com, that tedious process was bypassed altogether.

In the last three or four years purchasing co-ops like Buyboards.com have popped up all over the country, following the lead of innovative Web sights in Florida and California. These services research vendors for the best prices, product quality and compliance with statutes and regulations required by government entities like municipalities, schools, counties and government agencies and perform the bidding process according to legal requirements. The vendors, who pay a fee to be a part of the process, also benefit by having their information posted on the site and thereby lessening the necessity of responding to every individual bid.

"Typically, clients have a need, look for a product and look at multiple vendors," says Sharon McAfee, bid administrator with Buyboards.com in Austin, Texas. "We establish annual contracts that they can order off of those contracts. It saves administrative costs because they don't have to bid on the items, and it's convenient—it saves time."

Although these sites were originally intended to service the needs of a particular geographic area, it is now possible to purchase items from another state, in some cases, thanks to the inter-local participation laws passed two years ago. These laws make it possible for two or more government entities to purchase off another government entity's contract.

To find out more about purchasing co-ops, search for Web sites that provide bidding services in your area.


WIRED OR WIRELESS?

Another important scoreboard feature to consider is the communication signal—wired or wireless. The wired scoreboard, like Old Faithful, can boast of its reliability and its ability to be seen as a visual landmark or focal point in a stadium or field.

In the last five years, however, wireless has become a hot option.

"This is one of the newest technologies in scoreboards in the last 30 years," says Peter Cowen, president of a scoreboard manufacturer. "It really saves a lot of money in the installation of the scoreboard since you don't have to dig up a field or cut across sprinkler lines."

Although the scoreboard is still tethered to a power source, the control panel communicates to the scoreboard through radio signals. For the truly footloose and fancy-free, portable scoreboards can also be free of electrical cabling by running on solar-powered batteries.

The advantages in running fewer cables to either the control panel or to the scoreboard itself are ideal for several scenarios: for fields used for multiple sports, for fields built on refurbished landfill sites, little-league sports always on the get-up-and-go, for older facilities where wiring and cables cannot be easily located without costly excavation, or for newer facilities looking to save money on installation costs. Even Mother Nature gives an approving nod to wireless with the fringe benefit of improved lightening protection.

However, wireless equipment can also be more easily damaged. Not only does their portability subject them to more opportunities for abuse, but because they are more lightweight than their tethered counterparts, they have been known to blow over in windy conditions. Also, with a reliance on rechargeable batteries, it becomes essential to know if the equipment's power will last—especially in a large competition.

Finally, there is the possibility that communication can get interrupted.

"One has to bear in mind that wireless, as good as it is, isn't perfect," Bierschbach says, "If you've got a cell phone, you can attest to that—you can lose connections. One thing to consider if you are going to have a large competition, where there is more at stake, is to put in a wired connection as a backup."

Manufactures as well as veteran athletic directors will be quick to tell you that having a wired backup makes good sense.

BACK TO THE BASICS

Then, of course, a scoreboard needs to be selected depending on its intended use. Any sport that needs a clock, score, and period or inning indicator can be adapted to a general scoreboard that may not have all the information wished for but which is adequate to get the job done. Looking for upgradeable products is one way to ensure that if not all bells and whistles can be purchased, they can at least be added, as needed, over time.

"Because they're so basic, they can be used to score multiple sports and are often the first choice for budget-conscious programs," explains Roger Selesky, regional sales manager for a scoreboard manufacturer. "Other sports-specific features can be added: tracking time-outs, downs, yardage and quarters for football; innings, ball counts, outs and at-bats for baseball; and shots, saves and halves for soccer, among others."


KEEPING COSTS DOWN

Who wouldn't like to have the Rolls Royce of all scoreboards? But facing reality means facing a budget and living within its constraints—it's the No. 1 factor shaping scoreboard-buying decisions. But with a little creative thinking and a forward-looking strategy, having fewer dollars doesn't mean having to settle.

  • Think long-term. Short-term cost isn't all it's cracked up to be when power efficiency, quality of product and cost of maintenance are taken into account. The higher sticker price may be cheaper in the end.
  • If short-term budgets are impossible to stretch, consider buying products with upgradeable features to increase capabilities over time.
  • If LED is your dream board, but your budget won't budge, consider purchasing a single-line scoreboard that rotates through information or game results with upgradeable capability to expand the unit when money allows.
  • For many who purchased incandescent scoreboards in the last few years before LED was as feasible and for whom convincing taxpayers and those in charge of the purse strings that a perfectly good scoreboard needs "replacing," consider retrofitting existing boards with LED components. This costs less than buying an entirely new scoreboard and will reduce operational costs in the bargain.
  • Buy a generic scoreboard for sports like basketball, wrestling and volleyball, which may not have all the sport-specific-details, but it is certainly more cost-effective than buying three different boards.
  • Factory-direct products cut out the middleman and pass cost savings on to the customer.
  • Choosing a scoreboard painted with a powder-coated finish can save money and maintenance headaches. Powder-coated finishes, popular for some time on playground equipment, is now an option with some scoreboard products and lasts two- and three-times longer than traditional painted finishes.

THE MATRIX

LED matrix scoreboards, however, are one way to combat the back-to-the-basics blues. Having a matrix scoreboard is rather like having an electronic chalk board which, when programmed, can display sport-specific information at the touch of a button. With this style of scoreboard comes the possibility of scrolling text and even animation. Bells and whistles, to be sure, but if not affordable at the outset, can at least be considerations for the future.

SWIMBOARDS

All scoreboards, whether basic or sport-specialized, share a common enemy: water. Having scoreboards housed in a noncorrosive metal like aluminum or steel is one way to keep rust at bay, but keep in mind that even steel can rust from the inside out. In the case of water sports where the environment is especially corrosive, water-resistant efforts include coated circuitry to prevent malfunction.

Swim boards, like basic scoreboards, can be as simple as having lane, times and placement information or scrolling that information over a single line scoreboard that rotates through the results of each competitor. But the more sophisticated the information, the more helpful to the swimmer and the spectators. Swimmers can use upgrades in timing information to pace themselves, and spectators can get information more quickly thanks to the newest generation of timing consoles with software that interfaces with laptop connections.

Graphics and color-coded information can help make the plethora of swim-meet information easier to see and more quickly understood. With automated timing systems, using touch-pads in each lane that sends information to consoles, spectators can see the touch-pad times posted on scoreboards almost instantly.


TOLD YOU SO

Everybody has the benefit of looking back and realizing they could have done something differently. When it comes to buying scoreboards, there is plenty of advice to help avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

Visibility

One of the most important features in a scoreboard to look for is visibility. Be sure all seating areas can easily see the board from their locations, that the board is bright enough and that the digits are easy to read.

Going out of business?

Be sure your vendor is no fly-by-night. Cheap price is no substitution for a tried-and-true company with history to back up its products. Getting stuck with a scoreboard after a company fails will leave you with a dead-end product without repair or replacement service. A strong warranty speaks volumes about company longevity and quality.

Compatibility

When adding to a system, be sure to insist on compatibility or interchangeability—either by having all scoreboards components and timing systems from the same vendor and of the same quality or being very, very certain that compatibility is possible between differing vendors. It's common for well-meaning purchasing departments to go for the bottom line, but the bottom line won't count for much if four and five different systems don't work together or are mismatched in quality and performance.

Usefulness

Be sure to consider carefully all the uses the scoreboard can have in your facility. It's not uncommon to overlook a scoreboard's use beyond the competition or the swim meet. Think about whether a board will be used for practices, classes or other events.

Only the best

When possible, try to get the best quality you can afford. Always going with the cheapest product can often cost more money down the road.

Research

Talk to people using the system you are interested in buying. Be sure they use the system as much as you anticipate using yours to compare apples to apples.


PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE

Aquatic scoreboards that can be programmed are especially useful during training when each swimmer can program his or her workout and respond to the results accordingly for more efficient and individualized results.

Using scoreboards with programmable features for workouts and training programs isn't just for swimmers, however. Scoreboards as a practice and workout tool is a hot trend for other athletes and even physical-education classes as well. Not only do many more users benefit from a formerly one-use-only scoreboard, but it makes a stronger case in persuading the purchasing-powers-that-be that a scoreboard is an asset throughout the week and not just for a handful of games.

"Our system is also used for practices," says Jim Tonkovich, head swim coach for Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., of its recently upgraded timing system and full LED display. "The scoreboard is used approximately six hours a day, six days a week, 300 days a year. It is also utilized for phys-ed classes for dry-land work, upper-body work, and lanes are programmed with different workouts, too. Ninety days out of the year it's getting an additional five hours of use from phys-ed."

BELLS AND WHISTLES

With greater technology for the scoreboard has come wider application. No longer just a display for stats, scores and times, scoreboards have taken on the role of adding spectacle, entertainment and even generating revenue. For high-budget venues like colleges, universities and pro-sport stadiums, scoreboards now include television-like features of instant replay, full-color video, color animation, graphics, and ad displays for vendors and corporate sponsors.

For the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., with a football stadium that averages 105,000 spectators per game, buying its recent scoreboard was not only about big bucks but about big effects.

"With a complete video replay system, it takes producers, camera operators, mixing boards and more to put on an entertaining show," says Gary Wyant, executive associate athletic director for the University of Tennessee. "We're also in the process of putting in a new baseball video scoreboard, which is a matrix and a huge video component."

The new system will feature a speed-of-pitch radar gun display, instant replay, moving animation and between-inning-antics entertainment. Also newly installed is the university's track scoreboard, which Wyant describes as having programmable numerical data that is shown over live video of the race giving the scoreboard a TV-like effect.

Choosing scoreboards and timing systems has come a long way from the days of flipping numbers and clicking a stop watch—with technology expanding the possibilities, it is about assessing needs and knowing current product options to get the right product for the job.


THE RIGHT STUFF

Whether your scoreboard and timing system are state of the art or basic multipurpose, knowing what to look for to make the best buy is universal. The following are some of the most common areas to consider before you plunk down your money and sign on the dotted line:

Durability  Know how much abuse your scoreboard and system will get and buy accordingly, especially if the scoreboard will be portable or in a school gym.

Service  Not all company services are created equal. Getting parts overnight or having a local parts exchange certainly beats waiting two weeks for a delivery. Or, it can be a game-saver when a company provides local service reps or 24-7 phone support to help at a moment's notice to fix an untimely malfunction during that all-important competition. Shop around and be sure you can get the best service you can afford.

Expandability  Knowing that your scoreboard can keep pace with technology and can expand with your needs can save you from having to buy a new system when a dead-end product has become obsolete.

Product quality  Buying the best product you can afford, looking at warranty information and getting word-of-mouth testimonials by others who use the product will save you future maintenance-related headaches of "getting what you paid for."

Company history  With scoreboards lasting from 20 to even 30 years, it's a safer bet to stick with vendors with some history behind them to ensure that they'll still be there when you need them.

Readability  Look for scoreboards that are bright enough to see and have easy-to-read digits and letters.

Portability  Assess your needs for portability, changing console locations and the pros/cons of trenching up fields to supply power sources to determine if wireless scoreboards and radio-controlled consoles are for you.




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