Upgrade Your Gameday Experience
Lighting, Sound & Scoreboard Improvements to Engage Players & Fans
Most every recreational and sports event is lit and uses sound to communicate. Those are the basics. Night games can't be played outside if players can't see, and whether the event is inside or out, day or night, spectators need safety and game information from a person speaking into a microphone through a sound system. Instructors in fitness classes must guide students on the next moves and control music.
To add to the experience for spectators, venues can add color and flashing to the lighting for player introductions and celebrations of scores and wins. Scoreboards can incorporate video screens and other bells and whistles. Higher-volume sound systems can add to the thrill for events, while built-in mixers and control from a central location bring efficiencies. It's not uncommon these days to see fitness clubs featuring classes with a nightclub atmosphere, or for the fan experience found at the professional and college level to trickle down to high school sporting events.
Light It Up
In addition to the wow factor, changes can be made to lighting systems that enhance lighting quality and, most importantly, lower utility costs with energy savings. The most substantial technological change of the 21st century so far is the entrance of LEDs (light emitting diodes) to arena and stadium lighting. It's not necessarily flashy, but the savings are.
The average LED stadium lights last 50,000 to 100,000 operating hours or even more—two to four times longer than most metal halide and sodium vapor lights. That's more than 40 times as long as an average incandescent bulb. That means less maintenance expense and less frequent replacement.
Just as crucial to budget-conscious administrators, LED lights use about 80% less energy than metal halide.
Bonuses include: safety improvements because they can operate from low-voltage systems and produce much less heat; instant on/off reaction; and ability to control lighting systems remotely through phone apps. The main downside is entry cost, though it's important in this case to consider potential returns on that investment through energy and maintenance savings.
Jim Andrus, superintendent of Slaton (Texas) Independent School District, has recently overseen the replacement of 1,500-watt metal halide football stadium lighting with 750-watt LED lighting that he says has "the exact same lumen and far superior light coverage and clarity."
He added, "Our original system was a consistent maintenance challenge—our older wiring could no longer handle the load of the 1,500-watt bulbs, and replacing it was cost-prohibitive. We lost the lights several times during the season due to wiring failures."
LED sports lighting was the perfect solution, he said. "Our electric bill is also way down, which is a fantastic benefit to us, and the certainty of lights coming on at every game makes all of us sleep better."
From large stadium and field to a large complex of small courts: Platteville, Wis., built a pickleball complex in 2021 with all but $50,000 of the $335,000 total cost raised by the Platteville Area Pickleball Association (PAPA).
The Sanders-Trine Pickleball Complex boasts eight dedicated, tri-color pickleball courts. A walkway down the center divides the courts into two groups of four. A patio provides a shaded viewing area. An eight-foot fence with windscreens surrounds the courts on three of its four sides. The remaining side has a four-foot fence to facilitate viewing. The walkway is separated from the courts with its own four-foot fencing.
The goal of the local pickleball players who designed the complex was to create a high-quality experience for both the player and the viewer, said Larry Trine, a PAPA steering committee member.
"To meet the demand of players of all ages, lights were required to provide opportunities to play after school, after work, and in the cool of the evenings," Trine said. "Lighting allows play on the courts well into late fall and easily doubles the usage of the courts. Nighttime play is very fun because the darkness provides a nice dark background that helps one to see the ball."
Twelve LED fixtures provide Level 2 lighting for evening play. Trine said one of the things he learned from the project was for court action, there are three levels of lighting: recreation (Level 1), club (2), and professional (3). Trine said he could see the difference once the manufacturer explained.
"Level 2 lighting is absolutely wonderful, and while it is more expensive than recreational level, it is essential for play among advanced players," Trine said. "Municipalities tend to provide recreational-level lighting purely from a budgetary perspective. Our complex was envisioned by players who wanted to provide a quality experience. Some on the committee had played under lights before and knew the level of lighting that would serve us well."
Trine said the complex's full cutoff—no light emitted upward—LED fixtures deliver a tremendous amount of light onto the playing surface, while avoiding light pollution into the nearby neighborhood. From across the street, the lights look dim, he said, but "step out onto the complex courts and you feel like you might need sunglasses!"
Placement of light poles is critical to keep the lights from blinding the players, Trine said. Fixtures placed on the sides of the courts projecting light across the court minimizes glare for the players, said Trine, a different experience than the nearby tennis courts, which have floodlights.
"Our lighting system does not interfere with seeing the ball," he said. "The tennis players lose sight of the ball when the ball comes between the player and the floodlights."
Jacob Cheek, a sports lighting specialist with the Cincinnati-based manufacturer that worked on the Platteville project, said glare control is the industry's holy grail. It can be lessened by taller light poles, but taller light poles cost more money, and further away doesn't mean no glare. Switching from floodlights to area lighting is the ticket, said Cheek.
"LED is the main thing, but within that LED scope there's kind of an arms race to reduce glare," Cheek said. "Especially within the recreational field. Ideally your lights would never get noticed because the only time anyone ever notices light is when it's out or it's not performing well or they're seeing spots after they look up. How can we get the lowest-glare fixture possible?
"You can recess the LEDs higher up into the fixture and utilize a refractor or reflector. You can add shielding, and that cuts back on your light output. How do you reduce glare while maintaining a very high output of light? Whoever can crack that code first will be sitting pretty in the recreational market."
Trine said the placement of the light poles is a key to player-friendly lights as well. Fixtures placed on the sides of the courts projecting light across the court minimizes glare for the players, he said. However, the poles can be a potential hazard to players, as the need for fixtures to face downward requires that the poles be alongside the courts.
"Care must be taken so that players are not running into the light poles," said Trine. "Our courts have between seven and 10 feet of siderun, so the poles are farther away from the courts than most facilities."
Poles are a variable that can mean the difference between on-budget and over-budget merely because their main material, steel, is so costly, said Shahil Amin, an executive with a lighting manufacturer based in Charlotte, N.C. Clients should shoot to upgrade the lighting and keep the pole when retrofitting, he said.
"When upgrading the poles on a project, it could increase the overall cost tremendously," Amin said. "There are many variables that must be considered: what type of pole, what height, how many fixtures on that pole, what weight and effective projected area, etc. Once that has been determined, you will find varying incremental costs on whichever pole you must source. Keep in mind, the pole cost itself is only one part of it.
"Another part, and usually the most expensive, is the labor that must be considered to install the poles themselves. This requires digging, trenching, wiring, concrete pouring, contactor cost, etc. When using existing poles and removing the entire costs of parts and labor for poles, you should be able to save a tremendous amount of money. Retrofitting is always the preferred option, unless there are no existing poles, or the poles are so old and worn down that they must be replaced due to safety concerns."
Lights + Sound
Rob DeHart straddles the worlds of light and sound in his twin businesses that sell products and install them, respectively. Most of his lighting work is inside facilities, specializing in clubs and classes.
He said specialized lighting was very expensive until LED came along, and now more and more clubs are taking advantage of the affordability of LEDs to spice things up with items like strip lighting with multiple colors and programmable features.
"They've really stepped up the game trying to attract members," said DeHart. But he also knows there are many more smaller facilities with small budgets. For every sound system that is centrally operated at the welcome desk with multi-channel capabilities wired into multiple studios and every gym, weight room and climbing area, there are 20 that only need to broadcast to one room or two—one microphone and one speaker.
"Maybe you don't need two speakers and a subwoofer," he said. "Maybe you need an Evolve 50 tower speaker plugged into a sub with a mixer built in, power amplifier built in, rather than having to get two speakers with one or two subs, a separate power amp, a separate mixer. So now you're saving money. And they can be moved."
DeHart said that means a park district could schedule staggered classes and move the speaker with a built-in mixer from room to room. For a step up, a facility could get four speakers and a couple of subwoofers, he said. Battery-operated wireless microphones and built-in Bluetooth enable classes to be moved outdoors.
DeHart even sells a system, developed during the height of the pandemic when people felt safer exercising outdoors, that outfits class members with headphones that receive communication from the instructor so that any neighboring businesses, residences or passersby aren't disturbed.
There are microphones built to resist sweat for instructors, and waterproof speakers for outdoor use.
Besides budget, operators that are starting their sound system journey need at the minimum to know what they want in their facility, and suppliers need to be ready for the operators not really knowing, said DeHart.
"Are you thinking more lighting, more sound, do you want it brighter, are you going to have a lot of TVs?" said DeHart. "What kind of mood do you want for your place? We try to inspire them to look around a little."
Design is the third element. Does the client want each sound system separate, controlled in each room? Wall controls to eliminate racks?
The same questions apply to lighting, said DeHart. "We always ask for their (blueprints)," he said. "We need to know ceiling height, how many windows, how many mirrors. We love having plans because we know where we can run cables through the ceiling or down the walls or maybe there's existing cables."
Sound for Sporting Events
For clients more interested in sports event sound, the differences in outdoor and indoor venues are most notable in the context of conditions, said Skip Welch, a sound company sales director. In outdoor sound, wind, temperature and humidity play a significant role in the performance of an audio system. Indoors, the concerns are related to the acoustic properties of the room.
Welch said one of the keys to finding the right supplier and installer is not the product line as much as the service. Do the candidates have sound designers and software that previews the setup?
"A good sound designer will ask a lot of questions regarding the needs of the client," said Welch. "Then, they will use software to design a system with performance predictions. Of course, a live demo when possible will really give the venue a good idea of the performance of a system.
"Ideally, the client should know what they want from their system. For instance, how loud does it need to be? Is speech intelligibility the most important, or is it music? What area does the system need to cover? Where can loudspeakers be located? And, of course, what is the budget for the project?"
Welch said the sound industry is always innovating. One of the most crucial changes, he said, is the weatherization of speakers. Outdoor loudspeakers now have much more fidelity while being impervious to the weather. In addition, speakers can be smaller but still have full range output where that may have not been as feasible previously.
Customers are lately interested in as much bass response as possible, said Welch. "Music content now drives the sporting experience more than ever and being able to deliver low frequencies is important," he said. "We believe the (future) expectation is going to be higher levels of performance with full range and extended bass response. It's about creating an atmosphere and experience for attendees." RM