Upgrades Make for Better Scoreboard, Lighting & Sound Capabilities
It was a tough year for sports fans who couldn't attend sporting events due to the pandemic. And when they watched events on TV, part of the allure and excitement was certainly dashed by the canned applause and cardboard cutouts in the stands. But judging from a crowd at a minor league baseball game I recently attended, fans are ecstatic to be back in the seats. And whether you're in a high school gymnasium or a major league stadium, many factors can enhance the fan experience, including scoreboards, lighting and sound. As technologies advance, these amenities are continually being upgraded, making the events better for not just the fans but for the athletes as well.
Scoreboards have made big strides in recent years, and while standard numeric electronic scoreboards are still often utilized, video displays continue to become more mainstream. These displays can give fans a close-up view of the action no matter where they're seated. Facilities can show full-screen video or create zones for scores, live video and sponsors. Venues can also pair their scoreboard with a video display, keeping things simple but adding flexibility. The score is always visible and they up their game by adding animations, stats and sponsor recognition.
"As the cost of the LED video displays keeps coming down, customers are finding that the difference in price is worth it for the true flexibility that a video display offers", said Thomas Doran, project manager for a Colorado-based company that provides athletic facilities with timing, scoring and display systems. He points out that these displays offer unlimited opportunities to customize not only the overall size but also the content displayed. "Today's LED video displays have more in common with your large-screen TV than they do scoreboards of years ago. Practically any device you have that can output a video signal can drive an LED video display."
Venues of all sizes—including high schools and parks and rec facilities—are seeing that the cost of a video display is "very reasonable," according to Doran. "Smaller facilities are also realizing how much more they can do with a video display in terms of content. Most customers now leave their displays on at all hours of operation, displaying video clips, sponsors/advertising, slide shows and general information throughout the day."
The layout and physical characteristics of a venue can determine what products might work best at a particular site. "The LED video displays are a modular product by nature so that allows us to truly customize a solution for each customer," explained Doran, "whether it is budget constraints, physical constraints (i.e., fitting a display to a certain size opening) and even architectural constraints, such as blending a display into the overall design/shape of the facility."
Indoor and outdoor scoreboards and displays are very different, according to Doran. Outdoor displays have to be much brighter to deal with sunlight, and of course there's rain and snow to consider. "An indoor pool environment is actually a bit more challenging compared to an outdoor display," he said. "Indoor displays have to deal with potential bad air quality that, if not handled correctly, can actually accelerate the demise of electronics."
"For outdoor displays we do need to take into account the weather and also the location and direction a display is facing," Doran continued. "If a display is to face south we need to make certain that it will have sufficient brightness and contrast to still be viewable to the audience in full sun. Also, if a display is going to be close to water (beaches/ocean), we need to build in some extra protection for the electronics in order to deal with corrosive salt air."
Display controllers are increasingly more powerful, with standard features such as PIP location, seamless high-speed switch and fade-in/fade-out effects. Software interfaces should be intuitive to operate, often on standard Windows-style programs, and ability to connect to social media accounts is an added bonus. High-quality LEDs are important, as is having multiple ways to input video and display it on your board. "We're constantly improving our controllers and software, not only to take advantage of new technologies in displays but also to better meet our customers' needs," said Doran, adding that customers are now interested in tighter pixel pitches, "below 10mm."
"Additionally, we're seeing more requests for multiple video displays within facilities," said Doran. Welcome displays with team imagery in entrances and lobbies and displays in concourses are all becoming more common. Integrating content with audio or adding interactive elements can make displays memorable. Real-time advertising data can highlight special offers at concession stands and provide wayfinding information. LED ribbon boards can accommodate curved and 360-degree installations, encircling stadiums or being utilized in outfields, end zones, sidelines and concourses, displaying advertisements, promotions, live scores, statistics, crowd prompts, interactive text messaging and more.
To meet a challenge brought on by the pandemic, Doran's firm also released a virtual solution that facilitates dual meets at two separate aquatic facilities and shares real-time data between the two sites. "The main idea behind this was to give swimmers a chance to compete against one another even though they couldn't be in the same building," Doran said. "We came up with ways to have races run at two facilities that were synchronized in terms of starts of races, progress of the races, and also the compilation of final race data that can be displayed at both facilities simultaneously on their LED video displays." Doran said they also gave their customers a way to stream the meets and the corresponding data to the internet for families and fans to watch in real time.
But with all the advancements in video displays, the numeric LED electronic scoreboards are still a cost-effective way to provide information, involve the audience and showcase athletes. Modules can be used singly or combined in multiple-module electronic scoreboard designs. Panels can be added for sponsor advertising or facility/team name. High-visibility LED digits ensure that scoring data can be seen day or night. These scoreboards provide wireless play-by-play for a multitude of sports: football, hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, track, baseball/softball and multi-sport generic are some of the common offerings. "In terms of the more standard numeric scoreboards, we try to make ours as multi-sport as possible. Sports like basketball, volleyball and even wrestling all have a common set of information that gets displayed so they work well for all of these sports."
Light It Up
Lighting at sports and rec facilities has also undergone many new innovations in recent years, driven by technological advances. "The advancement of the light source (LED, plasma, etc.), drivers, power filters, surge protectors, heat dissipation, etc., continually improves," said Nick Page, vice president of design and technical support for an international sports lighting firm headquartered in Michigan. "Whether it affects efficiency, robustness or controllability, it is nonstop. I would say that controls are the hot item currently in the industry. We've come a very long way from the control systems of just a few years ago to where they handle all the game scheduling, off-site overrides or cancellations, maintenance schedules, reporting, special scenes or shows and diagnostics."
With all the ongoing advancements in lighting technology, Page explained how they've designed their system on a modular platform that makes implementing an improved component seamless. "We spent a lot of extra time and care creating a modular system that is easily upgraded." These systems are not only important for making upgrades easy, according to Page, "but also to keep our system cutting-edge with the rate of change that is happening with LED components. LEDs, drivers, electrical and electronic protection, controls, etc., are all improving quickly."
Of course, the newer systems are ultimately more economical, cutting energy consumption and operating costs. Page's firm has a 50,000-hour system, compared to the 3,000- to-5,000-hour metal halide systems. And LED fixtures have instant "on" capability, compared to up to 40 minutes with old standard stadium lighting. "The watts required are half or less than what was needed with metal halide systems," said Page. "LED systems are naturally more efficient and with the right optic technology, they're even better, because we have more usable light and less wasted light to get the beam shapes needed. The control systems are another big factor in operating costs. Systems can be programmed to turn on right before the game and off when it's complete, without personnel onsite."
Dimming is another factor that can help defray costs. "We include dimming with every system as a standard," said Page, "even if the customer has not requested it. The ability to dim allows the user to save money instantly. Fields can be lit for high profile events, like a championship game, but that level of lighting/energy cost is not required for the regular game use, practice level or cleanup."
All of these factors are making it more economically feasible for venues of all sizes to up their game as far as lighting these days, according to Page. "The color temperature alone is a good example of this. In the metal halide days it was very expensive and there were sacrifices to lamp life and lumen depreciation to use a lamp with color temperatures that were optimized for viewing and recording, so that was only implemented on the professional venues. With the newer technologies available, every aspect of the system is superior, if it is properly designed."
In fact, venues of all sizes are now looking to add special effects packages, such as light shows or colored lights for introductions, celebrations, etc., and Page confirms that they're seeing more and more of this trend. "This is growing in conjunction with the advancement of control systems. This capability has been around for quite a while, but not really logical to install for permanent use in a sports lighting facility. The combination of higher-power RGBA LEDs, superior optics and more robust and simplified control systems is pushing this along."
Light spill and glare have always been huge concerns for outdoor facilities; finding the right balance of offering superior light distribution on the playing surface while also keeping the neighbors happy. "Beam angles and pole position are and have always been a big factor for spill and glare," said Page. "The optics are much better with the newer technology. We are able to create many more useful beam shapes with the newer technology."
He explained that this is a combination of the optic technologies—like TIR lenses—and the fact that LEDs are a much smaller light source to shape. "The new systems can be beneficial because of the superior beam control and color temperatures. Designers are also able to achieve better uniformities, which is smoother lighting across the entire playing surface."
Whether designing lighting for the local skatepark, driving range or a professional football stadium, no two sports lighting requirements are exactly the same. Page described how each sport in general has different requirements with the light levels, pole locations, glare zones, design strategies, etc. "On top of that, most venues have obstacles that must be dealt with. It is very rare that we are able to use a cookie-cutter type of design, each one is custom."
Page said that it's more important than ever for designers to be knowledgeable in the sports lighting application and how to create the correct design strategy. "Because it's easier to hit targets like average foot candles (or Lux), maximum to minimum ratios, coefficient of variations, uniformity gradients, etc., the design may look great on paper, but if the poles are in the wrong place or aiming to the wrong place, or the aiming angles are incorrect, then the quality suffers for the players and spectators alike. This part of the project is tough to quantify. There are resources to assist, but like most guides, there is some interpretation that takes place. There is no technological replacement available for experience in sports lighting design."
Can You Hear Me Now?
So, your facility has a modern video display system and smooth, superior lighting. But if the sound is lacking, the fan experience can still fall a little short. We've all been to events where the voices over the PA system sound like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoon—muffled and unintelligible. Or the music sounds either tinny and compressed or fuzzy and overdriven. So is it hard to marry these two facets in your sound system—clear speech clarity with quality music reproduction?
"Decades ago it was a bit of a challenge, but now manufacturers offer 'horn loaded' speakers that provision the best of both worlds," said Jeff Palladino, sales manager for a Texas-based company that supplies sound products and sound systems for many applications, including stadiums, ball fields and gymnasiums both big and small. "Vocal intelligibility and robust music can easily be implemented for most any environment, as well as varying dispersion patterns to throw the sound from short to long distances, and with high SPL (sound pressure level) output if desired." He added that they can help determine the right speakers based on audience size, layout and objectives the customer wants to meet.
Over the past couple years I've attended high school baseball games where home team players had their own walk-on music triumphantly booming as they came to bat, just like the major leagues. So are smaller market venues beefing up their sound systems lately? "This has been trending upward for quite some time," said Palladino. "Venues are more interested in segueing away from 'bull horn' style speakers to horn-loaded, simply for the enhanced musicality. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi streaming can easily be incorporated to most any sound system solution for wireless sourcing of audio."
Palladino explained that audio systems can be controlled wirelessly from a smart phone or tablet, as well as provide tactile/analog-type controls for more hands-on users. "Additionally, multi-zone applications for multi-field complexes can allow for matrixing different audio to different areas either by zone or simultaneously, in any combination."
He described a four-zone commercial mixer/amplifier to assist in this design. "This has a built-in MP3/USB player, tuner, and Bluetooth receiver with remote control. Plug in mics, tablets, smart phones or any music source and they can all be mixed or sent to any of four separate zones. This also has built-in amplifiers to power the speakers. Very simple to deploy and operate."
Microphone technology has advanced as well. "Wireless microphones are increasingly popular," said Palladino, "for something simple as singing the national anthem, to awards ceremonies, to presentations and training applications. Whether it's a handheld, lapel, head-worn or a combination of each we have many solutions available for every budget."
Palladino points out that for outdoor applications, it's important to know the type of environment the speakers will be accommodating. Generally, you'd want a speaker that has an IP (ingress protection) rating of around IP44; the first number correlates to solids protection, the second number is for water. So an IP44-rated speaker would be protected against a solid object greater than 1mm, and water splashed from any direction. If your venue is near the coast or waterways subject to "high/driving rain," you might increase to an IP65. "All of these speakers are considered weather-resistant—limited ingress permitted and designed to weep or wick out—and not waterproof. Waterproof are submersible."
Speaker placement and reflection are important considerations, along with coverage patterns, and Palladino said they can design a system based on drawings, diagrams or layouts provided by the client. And what about adding sound to concourses, concession areas or other parts of a facility? "Due to social distancing and increasing customers' satisfaction, we see this on the rise. It also helps for covering situations where paging and/or alert announcements to all areas of concern are a consideration."
Fans venturing back out to live sporting events may not notice upgrades in video displays, lighting and sound. But those in the industry are always thinking about the next innovation to enhance the experience for fans and athletes alike. RM