Lighting the Way
Innovations & Applications of LED Scoreboards & Sports Field Lighting
By Kelli Anderson
Just when you think it can't get any better, it does. At 42-feet-by-124-feet, one of the newest scoreboards in the country was unveiled this August at the Ohio State University, and is just one of the latest in a string of high-def video scoreboards that is making news around the country for ever bigger, brighter, badder visuals and crowd-pleasing features.
In recent years, LED technology has been applauded for its energy efficiency and lower maintenance requirements, lowering its production cost price tag with every passing year and extending the useful life of equipment. No wonder, then, that it has become ubiquitous in scoreboard systems and sports field lighting.
But thanks to an economy that continues to put the squeeze on budgets, sporting facilities and organizations are looking for even more affordable, multitasking equipment and ways to save money and generate revenue. And with a sporting culture that has extended its love of big screen, HD video in the living room to the athletic venues, those same sporting facilities and organizations are being asked to provide even more visual entertainment at the same time. Enter the humble scoreboard. Humble no more.
Technological advancements in the past one to two years have certainly answered the call for both buyers and spectators alike. Providing greater color selections, more flexible designs, lower light-polluting technology and even greater energy efficiency, the improvements keep coming, offering something for just about everyone, both modest budgets and large.
"There is a whole new world of capabilities to think about," said Dave Verhoeven, a manager of scoreboard product development with one well-established industry leader based in London, Ontario, Canada. "Unveiling scoreboards comes with anticipation and excitement like never before."
Verhoeven, like many others in his field, said he's seeing a shift from more traditional fixed digital scoreboards to LED video boards, as well as to a blend of LED digital and video boards (called hybrids). While these boards are mostly found in college facilities, they are making their way into high schools, thanks to improvements in LED production and a reduction of manufacturing costs.
The advantages of video seem obvious. These virtual scoreboards go above and beyond fixed images of scores and stats, and can entertain the crowds with live game action and replays, showcase creative openers, and display content that integrates events into the game. They get the spectators involved with crowd prompts, interactive games and also offer a wider revenue source with advertising capabilities. Pretty impressive bells. Pretty impressive whistles.
But the appeal of LED video screens isn't just skin deep. It's also about flexibility with products that allow users to plan for their specific facilities.
"One trend of video displays is that they are no longer just about the sporting event on the field, but a gathering place for all kinds of campus and community events. They're being used in graduations and celebrations," said Angela Hatton, veteran manager with a manufacturer of scoreboards known to service humble high schools as well as world-class Olympic venues. "It's an electronic canvas with whatever content you want. They're being integrated in a lot of ways that truly become a community spot with all kinds of opportunities to meet a school's needs. They are a display to be the backdrop for the gathering."
Then there is the aspect of portability and modular systems that also make today's scoreboards that much more flexible. Portability, nothing particularly new, is certainly still popular and allows a scoreboard to perform its duties inside, outside and pretty much anywhere it's needed. Modular systems, too, while part of the more elaborate video screen genre, are moveable elements of a display that can morph from athletic application to full-on stage production eye-candy for concerts and other crowd-pleasing events.
Sponsorships Add Life—And Revenue
But whether fixed digital or video, both have the multifunction capability to generate revenue, a concept that is certainly nothing new. "Back when I first got into this, 120 years ago," said Corey Roy, athletic director with Neosho High School of Neosho, Mo., joking about his long-time OTJ experience, "you saw a lot of Coke and Pepsi on school boards when they would contract with you and sponsor the purchase of your scoreboard. Now schools have gone to more advertising—we have been able to sell sponsorship panels on our scoreboard that generate revenue, so that has been a benefit to us."
Video screens, in much the same way, provide advertising space as well, but in much larger quantities.
"Dwindling school budgets are affecting how they can fund scoreboard purchases," said Jeff Reeser, a national sales manager for a Des Moines, Iowa-based scoreboard manufacturer with years of experience in the industry, serving schools and professional athletic teams, alike. "Savvy school administrators are finding unique ways to fund their equipment through the purchase of video displays."
So, what's not to love about video screens? Well, for many, the price tag. Let's face it, even though the production costs of LED technology keep dropping, there are still those who simply are not able to sign on some of those dotted lines, no matter how appealing video screen flexibility and its visual siren-call may be. One possible option, however, for those who long for video and text displays, is to consider a system that is expandable if you cannot afford everything up front. It helps, however, when you have buy-in from groups willing to support the cause.
"One thing that's really critical when they're not inexpensive units at $20,000 (for municipal budgets, that's fairly expensive), is getting buy-in from all the interested groups who have a hand in the purchase of the design," said Tony Gowan, parks director with the City of Papillion, Neb. "In our case, we explored the possibility of video but the cost was so far out of our budget we decided against it, but because of the scoreboard design we chose, we have the ability to add a scrolling video board sometime in the future."
However, even for those for whom video screens (scrolling or otherwise) are simply not in the cards, there is still plenty of new LED fun to be had with fixed LED digital scoreboards.
What was old is new again in the recent introduction of the white LED light (in addition to the usual amber and red LED) that has created an upswing in nostalgic design options that hearken to the days of the old-school incandescent. For the newly purchased scoreboards in Fort Meyers, Fla., white LEDs played a significant role in their purchase choice.
"The availability of the white LED was a major deciding factor," said George Cornwall, electronic supervisor with the Lee County School District in the city. "It gives it that incandescent look, and the intensity seems brighter contrasted against the dark scoreboard and it pops. All the schools really love it, and I'm using it wherever I can afford it."
And, for some, with or without white LED, it's just about the nostalgia.
"Number one, we wanted to emulate the look of an old scoreboard that used to be in our baseball field, Fricke Field," Gowan said about the role history played in their final design choice. "We wanted an old-school feel, so in addition to the traditional features such as innings, hits, errors and player's numbers, we used an analog-like clock in the shape of a baseball, used a girder system as a backdrop and incorporated the field's name as in the past. We not only met the needs of our players and parents, but also my department, now that everything is LED and low maintenance. Everyone was satisfied."
Form and Function
But Gowan is not alone in choosing an LED digital over a video board. For many, video is not necessarily better.
"I think people sometimes go for the home run, a video board, and they lose sight of what really is the function of what they're wanting," Roy said about how Neosho recently upgraded its outdated scoreboards to a four-sided scoreboard for the center of its gym, with scoreboards at either end and two outdoor boards for both football and baseball. "One school I know with a video board had a hard time finding people to run it correctly and were frustrated because they couldn't get it to work right. We have a retired teacher that comes in and does our scoreboards who is pretty technologically challenged."
Hatton knows of what Roy speaks, and cautions that it's easy for clients to get excited and to think only in the moment, but said its more important to ask what the new system really needs to do and to ask who will operate it.
Despite the fact that many systems are designed for ease of use, the fact remains that anything new takes a commitment to learn and may require more people to run it. "You have to choose what's right for a facility, and sometimes that will require more workers," Hatton said, emphasizing that it's important to work with customers and to find what is really right for them.
However, Hatton suggested that for those who struggle to find technologically savvy operators, one possible source of qualified volunteers may be no further than your local school classroom. Students who are used to working in A/V classrooms where there is a lot of integration of displays and where they are used to newer technologies are often happy (and capable) to work with new computerized equipment.
Another way to make that learning curve a little easier is that if buying multiple boards or systems, make sure that they come from the same manufacturer. Training will be similar from board to board and may even use the same controllers.
"My biggest concern was maintenance and ease of use and being able to teach how to use them and control them," Roy said about a major factor in his selection of equipment. "The best thing is that each controller can be used on any scoreboard."
Similarly, if you have been happy with a previous manufacturer, upgrading to their newer systems will mean an easier transition than going with a new company. "The training for us has been seamless," Roy said of his school's experience. "It's extremely easy to use, but the nice part was we utilized the same company as our last one so a lot of the same instruction used in the old scoreboard translated to the new one. So basically it was hook up the electricity and have fun with it. It was all the same concept as before."
Simplification of the needlessly complex seems to be on everyone's mind these days, with manufacturers designing more user-friendly boards and wireless systems. For Cornwall, who has been purchasing scoreboards for decades, wireless controllers have been a welcome change from hardwired systems that would get damaged by everything Mother Nature could throw at them. "Wireless continues to be a key component of purchases," Reeser confirmed. "The interference-free operation of multiple venues and scoreboard configurations is key."
Other important considerations are the lifetime of the display, its warranty and the kind of support that will be offered with the purchase.
As a result of Cornwall's many years of board-purchasing experience, the first thing he looks for is the warranty. "Replacement parts are very expensive, so the longer the warranty, the better it is financially," he said. "And on that same note, technical support is very important."
For Roy, customer service was a critical component, and he cited his appreciation of local support staff he knew he could count on. "We have a local guy who even drove up the night of our game to work on a problem," Roy said. "He's been back several times. One time on a game night, I was freaking out and it turned out that it just wasn't plugged in. He came over, plugged it in, and just laughed. In choosing a board, you have to look at the warranty and service and ask, will they come back and work on it for you? Do they communicate well with you?"
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