Feature Article - March 2006
Find a printable version here

Ready for their Close-up

Scoreboards that steal the spotlight

By Dawn Klingensmith

Lights out for incandescent

LEDs have long been used in small applications, such as showing the time on digital alarm clocks and illuminating cell-phone keypads. With their cost continuing to come down, they're becoming increasingly common in larger applications such as scoreboards. In fact, many scientists say it won't be long before LEDs are practically ubiquitous.

However, for all but the most recent buyers, incandescent scoreboards had been a viable option on account of their affordability. It's only been in the last year or so that the cost of LED technology has dropped to the point where sports and recreation managers with shallower pockets could consider purchasing LED scoreboards.

While LED's sticker price is still a little steeper, it can make a good long-term investment.

"When you look at the higher maintenance costs for incandescent scoreboards over the long haul, you come out ahead with LED," Steinkamp says, adding that his scoreboard company no longer even sells incandescent models.

He expects other manufacturers to follow suit.

"From a service and spare-parts perspective, I'd say it's inadvisable at this point to buy an incandescent scoreboard," he says. "A couple of years from now, not only will it be inadvisable, but I'm fairly certain it'll be nearly impossible. Nobody will be making them anymore."

The probable elimination of an entire category of scoreboards doesn't make the selection process a no-brainer for those in the market for a new system, though. For one thing, LED might not be the right answer for every environment.

Swim Coach Kevin Auger of Evanston Township High School in Illinois learned this the hard way. When his boys' swim team seized the national championship in 2001, and the school's booster club gave the swim program a wad of cash as a reward, Auger elected to spend the money on a scoreboard expansion that doubled the size of the existing display. Big, bright and eye-grabbing, the LED matrix scoreboard seemed like a ray of good fortune for a natatorium with no windows and seating for 2,000. Auger's situation might be an exceptional case, but as it turned out, the high-tech scoreboard was too sensitive for the humid, heavily chlorinated environment.

The scoreboard's LED panels were connected to one another with ribbon data cables in a daisy-chain configuration, and like a string of Christmas lights, when one panel failed, the whole chain failed. At least once a week, Auger had to hoist himself up a ladder to fix the panels, which he assumes were victims of corrosion.