Feature Article - March 2007
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Grand-Slam Scoreboards

Entertainment & timing technology come together

By Brian Summerfield

First, the good news

The best part about the scoreboard market today is that there's never been a better time to get one. The interfaces generally look sharper, perform better and take up fewer resources than ever before. The reason behind this development can be explained in three letters: LED.

The acronym stands for light-emitting diodes, a technology that's been around for decades but nonetheless only revolutionized the scoreboard in the past few years. LEDs convert electric energy through semiconductor chips to produce light. Because of this, LEDs don't have filaments. Thus, they'll burn much longer than regular bulbs.

Prior to LEDs, the scoreboard functioned via incandescent lights, which were in principle just one step above the oil-burning lamp. Make no mistake: The innovative designers behind scoreboards managed some pretty impressive displays with incandescents, but this technology was always limited by its quickly-burned-out bulbs, its rapacious consumption of energy and its relative brittleness. It was doomed to be taken over by something better eventually.

And taken over it was. Although introduced long before, LEDs only began to have a serious impact in the past decade as the technology matured and the quality of the lighting greatly improved. Now the bright glow of LED is nearly ubiquitous: It can be found not only in scoreboards of all types, but also in cell phones, traffic lights and the Las Vegas strip, just to name a few places.

So what makes LEDs so great? Quite simply, everything. For starters, they provide more light per watt than incandescent bulbs. Another advantage of LEDs is that they die hard. These lights will fade out over a long time, as opposed to incandescents that burn out instantly. Also, the solid, durable casings around LEDs offer a means of protection from physical contact.

In terms of aesthetic values, LEDs are superior as well. The hard shells that protect them offer a way in which they can focus light. The result is a patent clarity in picture that can't be matched by incandescent light. What's more, LEDs can emit light in different colors without the use of any color filters. In addition, LEDs brighten up fully very quickly when turned on, contrasting with the protracted warm-up time of incandescent lights. They're also more visually versatile: LED scoreboards have more flexibility in terms of where they can be placed in relation to sunlight, and also provide wider viewing angles for audiences.

There are tradeoffs as far as budget concerns go, but LED again comes out ahead in the end. While people who purchase LED systems will pay more on the front end for installation, configuration and the equipment itself, they'll pay significantly less on the back end for additional supplies, maintenance and energy consumption. And although that up-front payment has sometimes been too costly for smaller venues, it has fallen in recent years.

To be sure, there are a few instances when it would be better to opt for an incandescent scoreboard. For example, near an indoor pool, the hot and extremely humid conditions can tamper with the performance of LED technology. But for the most part, for reasons of performance, cost and longevity, LED is the scoreboard of choice in the market.

"The LED technology should make this (scoreboard) last 20-plus years for us," said Dan Martens, director of procurement at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Ind., who recently purchased a four-face center-hung scoreboard with video, two 12.5-millimeter video displays, sponsor and identification signage, and several accessories for the school's gymnasium. "We're hoping that upgrades to software and computers will keep the board looking as good in the future as it does now."

It could even last longer than Martens' two-decade estimation, as lifecycles for LED scoreboards are typically 100,000 hours or higher. "Our estimation is that if you use 3,000 hours a year, then that would be quite a few—10 hours a day, basically," he explained. "Ours isn't on nearly that much, but if you have 3,000 hours per year, the boards should last 33 years before the modules start going bad."

The video components of the scoreboard are especially appealing, Martens said. "We are a small campus, but this cutting-edge technology is used in many aspects: athletics, student events, commencement ceremonies, recruiting. It is used in a lot of things. You can't put a dollar value on that. You can just say that it enhances your organization that much more and makes it that much better by having the video capabilities. For the most part, a scoreboard is just a scoreboard. It's the video that makes the difference."

Ken Diericks, director of facilities at Waunakee Community School District in Waunakee, Wis., echoed Martens' positive appraisal. "We're really happy with the ones we got," he said of the scoreboards he procured in the past few years for the district's schools at the elementary, intermediate and secondary levels. "All of our most recent purchases are LED. That saves a lot of time and labor in terms of changing the bulbs."