Ready for their Close-up

Scoreboards that steal the spotlight

By Dawn Klingensmith

When Thomas Edison discovered a practical form of incandescent lighting in 1879, his invention was such a momentous breakthrough that more than a century later, today's cartoonists still draw a light bulb over a person's head to signify the birth of a brilliant idea. Lately, however, many scoreboard manufacturers and buyers are taking a dim view of incandescent lighting.

The bulbs have short life spans and are shameless energy-suckers. For these and other reasons, incandescent scoreboards have begun a slow fade toward obsolescence, with some manufacturers predicting their eventual extinction.

Taking a shine to LED

"Anyone who's planning to buy a new scoreboard is not going to opt for incandescent," says Mark Steinkamp, a marketing and sales support manager for a scoreboard manufacturer. "It simply wouldn't make sense. The LEDs are so much more reliable."

Steinkamp is referring to light-emitting diodes, newer light sources that literally and figuratively outshine the incandescent lamps that have been with us in one form or another since the days of Edison. An LED is a tiny, solid-state lamp with semiconductor chips that turn electric energy into light. Unlike ordinary light bulbs, LEDs don't have filaments that become brittle over time and eventually break. They'll burn for a decade or more—up to 16 times longer than regular bulbs. Plus, LEDs are more durable. When a batter slugs a baseball at an incandescent scoreboard, that shattering noise you hear isn't just the opposing team's pulverized hopes but also the sound of breaking bulbs. LEDs can withstand greater impacts, so aspiring Sammy Sosas aren't as likely to decimate scoreboard digits.

Superior brightness and clarity are other selling points for LED.

"The crispness and contrast is way beyond what you can achieve with incandescent," says Richard Webb, vice president and director of landscape architecture at Kaestle Boos Associates, a New Britain, Conn., firm specializing in sports and recreation facility design.

He adds that LED technology gives athletic-field designers more flexibility in terms of scoreboard placement with respect to the sun.

"You don't want the sun shining directly on your scoreboard," he says, whether it's outfitted with ultra-bright LEDs or not. "But an LED scoreboard can be pushed a little farther into the sun or shadows if need be, and you'll still be able to read it."

Aside from being easier on the eyes, LED scoreboards literally might be less of a pain in the neck, as LEDs offer wider viewing angles.

"With an incandescent scoreboard, a 120-degree viewing angle is what you'd typically try to achieve, but because of LED's superior vibrancy, 140 degrees or better is easily achievable," says Chris Cullen, a sales manager for a scoreboard manufacturer.

But LED's biggest advantage over incandescent is energy-efficiency. In setting their filament ablaze, conventional light bulbs generate warmth, which is completely wasteful unless you want your scoreboard to double as a space heater. In LEDs, a much higher percentage of electrical power goes directly to generating light. Typically, LEDs operate on less than 20 percent of the power required for incandescent lamps, which can cut electricity costs enormously.

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.

Virtual scoreboards for swim facilities

Last year, when the Evanston boys' team became state champions and the booster club once again came through with a benefaction, a fed-up Auger decided to replace his fancy LED matrix scoreboard with a software-driven projection scoreboard.

Basic systems of this type use special software, a touchpad-linked timing device, a projector and a screen to cast alphanumeric information, such as swimmers' names and times, onto a wall. Auger's system is a little more complicated. His components include a timing device, three computers, two types of proprietary software, customizable display systems he developed himself using Microsoft PowerPoint and Excel software, two ceiling-mounted projectors, and two 9-foot-by-6-foot wall-mounted screens. Far cheaper than his previous scoreboard, Auger's $15,000 system enables him to project times, relay splits, overall standings, and full-color graphics and video onto the wall.

To get full-color capabilities on a normal scoreboard would have cost Auger upward of $200,000, he says.

The booster club got a lot of bang for its buck. But cost wasn't Auger's only concern when he went scoreboard shopping. Flexibility and versatility also were high on his list.

Evanston Township High School's natatorium hosts more than its share of events—water polo matches; diving competitions; and high school, club and masters swim meets.

"We needed some type of scoring system that we could fix ourselves overnight if we had to," Auger says, given such widespread reliance on the facility.

If something happens to his projectors or screens, Auger can raid the school's audiovisual department for replacements.

The virtual scoreboard also gets used as a training tool. During practice, Auger videotapes swimmers so they can evaluate their technique on the big screen afterward.

One virtual scoreboard manufacturer reports that a recreation center uses its system to show movies at overnight swim parties for teens. That would be a heck of a time to screen Jaws.

From Sapphires to Scoreboards

See those green and blue light-emitting diodes in your new scoreboard? Before they grew up to be LEDs, they started out as sapphires.

The full-color LED displays that football fans can make out on a sun-drenched day rely on the semiconductor gallium nitride for their brilliance. Sapphires are key to the semiconductor's development.

Surpassed in hardness only by diamonds, sapphires actually are aluminum oxide crystals, which can be created in labs, says David Reid, the manager who oversees the process at Honeywell Electronic Materials in Victoria, British Columbia. The lab-grown crystals are cored to get rods, which are then sliced into thin disks. Polished on one side and rough on the other, the disks are placed in a reactor, where a process called Metal Organic Chemical Vapor Deposition takes place. Simply put, this reaction is the act of conception that leads to the birth of blue and green LEDs.

Gases flow over the sapphires, depositing elements in layers onto the disks. The resulting bonds form gallium nitride, the semiconductor needed to produce the blue and green light. When the disks reach the desired thickness, most of the sapphire substrate is ground off, though some remains in place for the sake of stability. The disks are then diced into chips, Reid explains. It takes 8,000 to 10,000 semiconductor chips, along with other materials and a plastic cap, to make a single LED that glows blue or green when electricity passes through it. LEDs are then incorporated by the hundreds or thousands into high-end scoreboards.

If you're imagining that shiny blue sapphires impart color to the LEDs, think again. Pure, lab-created sapphires are clear, like glass. Naturally occurring blue gemstones form when impurities creep in during crystallization, Reid says. These blue beauties play no part in the creation of colored LEDs; ironically, their crystal-clear cousins do.

Place, programming, price

Though perfect for Evanston's windowless natatorium, a projection system isn't the best option for brightly lit facilities, for the same reason movie theaters don't show films with the lights on.

So, how do you select a scoreboard that'll be a peak performer for your particular facility? The three main factors affecting your decision will be the size and type of athletic facility (place), the sports and events that take place there (programming), and of course your budget (price). Later, we'll discuss how to bulk up a puny budget through sponsorships, but for now we'll focus on the first and second points.

Webb of Kaestle Boos Associates says one of the most common errors buyers make is erecting what they think will be a massive scoreboard, but then it ends up getting dwarfed by its surroundings once it is in place.

"Big is not necessarily better," he says, "but there are a ton of fields out there where the scoreboard looks the size of a postage stamp because overall scale, and the viewers' relationship to the scoreboard, weren't really taken into consideration."

Remember that a stop sign, though actually the size of a small tabletop, comes across looking like a dinner plate from your perch in the driver's seat.

Selecting the right size is largely a matter of experience, Webb says, adding that the first scoreboard he ever installed "turned out to be a little too small for the facility."

Now an old pro, he strongly advises facilities to take the advice of designers and manufacturers when specifying scoreboard dimensions.

Along with size, consider situation. Outdoor scoreboards face off against foul weather, so sturdy, rustproof cabinet construction with a durable finish is a must. Though LEDs are tough, some manufacturers play it safe by installing protective, polycarbonate windows over the lights so they're not exposed to the elements.

Most outdoor boards are freestanding structures, so foundation costs are another consideration.

"The foundation can contribute a lot to the cost of the scoreboard," Webb warns. "Scoreboards are basically big, flat, top-heavy planes that don't let the wind blow through them, so they have to be able to withstand some force. There's some structural engineering that goes into the design of these things."

And that affects the bottom line because you pay for the expertise.

Programming is another issue you must thoroughly examine before buying a scoreboard. Lexington High School in Texas has a field used exclusively for baseball, so when the district needed a new scoreboard, it made sense to zero in on a sports-specific model that comes across as a monument of sorts to America's favorite pastime.

The new 20-foot-by-13-foot scoreboard is green and gold with "Eagle Baseball" spelled out in giant lettering across the bottom. It replaced a smaller, less colorful scoreboard that did not display the scores by inning.

The most informative baseball-only scoreboards on the market not only break scores down by inning but also show who's at bat, the number of hits and errors, and the speed of each pitch.

Focus on flexibility

But for every field of dreams devoted solely to baseball, there are countless multiuse facilities that require multisport scoreboards. Where budgets are restricted, the various teams can make do with a basic model that shows the time, score and period.

However, LED technology has advanced to the point that teams who share a high-school gymnasium, for example, need not settle for a fixed-digit basketball-volleyball-wrestling scoreboard, with its alphanumeric limitations.

"A lot of companies are doing a good job with product development, so we're seeing scoreboards that are flexible [as opposed to generic]," Webb says.

Full-matrix scoreboards, for example, have no fixed digits and therefore provide unlimited flexibility and universality. Although matrix scoreboard operators have the freedom to start with what basically amounts to a blank slate, most models come with user-friendly shortcuts. Simply by pushing a few buttons, scorekeepers can bring up sports-specific scoreboard configurations or activate sports-specific animations, text messaging and graphics.

Madison High School in Rexburg, Idaho, installed two red LED matrix scoreboards that function in this manner. Located at each end of the gymnasium, the 8-foot-by-4-foot scoreboards have software packages that enable users to click on an icon to display customizable basketball, volleyball or wrestling scoreboards. The scoreboards store players' photos, names and other team data and also keep track of game stats over the course of a season.

Just as Madison's scoreboards can be designed to impart a wealth of visuals and information, they also can be stripped down to the bare essentials of timing and scoring so that physical-education teachers can use one or both units to time or score any number of activities, from circuit training to dodge ball.

Webb's advice for selecting the right board starts with brainstorming to try to anticipate every possible way the facility might be used.

"You have to sit down and think about these things with maximum flexibility in mind so you'll end up with the right number of functions in the scoreboard," he says.

Webb points out that traditional baseball scoreboards don't have a running-time feature, since innings go on indefinitely. So if a program director later decides that field hockey should be played on the same patch of grass, the scoreboard will be less than serviceable, if not totally useless.

As another example, a high-school principal Webb worked with said the football stadium was the only place to assemble all 2,000 students at once should the need ever arise, so the school considered equipping the scoreboard with a scrolling text display to convey any vital information the situation called for.

Designed for maximum flexibility, Madison's LED matrix scoreboards can be used to create visual aids for school assemblies or pep rallies.

Scoreboards that pay for themselves

It would be misleading, though, to imply that Madison installed matrix scoreboards just because they were flexible. In fact, the cash-strapped public school ended up with the $60,000 system only because it was free, says Athletic Director Eric Lords.

The manufacturer donated the system with the stipulation that one scoreboard be used during timeouts and halftimes to display full-motion advertisements—typically 20 to 30 per game—for national corporate sponsors such as the U.S. Marines. Under the agreement, the manufacturer provided the scoreboards, along with control devices and software, free of charge to the school. To pay itself back and eventually see a profit, the manufacturer sells ad time to sponsors, pockets a portion of the proceeds and passes a percentage on to Madison. A boys' basketball powerhouse, Madison so far has funneled these revenues back into its well-regarded athletics program to pay for equipment, uniforms and travel, however, the school is free to earmark the funds for anything from pompons to geography texts.

The seven-year agreement also allows Madison to go out and seek advertisers on its own, but local ads may be shown before or after the game only. The school gets to keep all the advertising dollars it attracts on its own, though.

As part of the bargain, the manufacturer services and maintains the scoreboards at no cost to the school.

Jon Bailey, manager of a scoreboard manufacturer, says such arrangements are becoming increasingly common.

"Public schools are under-funded and have problems meeting basic educational needs, so they're more open these days to getting corporate sponsorships to fund extracurricular activities," he says.

Hence, a lot of manufacturers have in-house marketing departments or partnerships with independent firms that enable them to secure marketing dollars for clients. In a typical arrangement, the manufacturer enlists sponsors to foot the cost of the scoreboard. The school agrees to pay the sponsors back by displaying their logos on static sign panels and by providing so many minutes of dynamic advertising per game for a specified period of time. In Madison's case, the sponsors provide ads on a computer disk, and a trained user uploads them onto the scoreboard via a laptop with a wireless connection.

After the specified period ends, the school owns the scoreboard outright and can use it to generate revenues through ad sales under whichever terms and conditions administrators choose to establish.

In addition to schools, softball complexes and soccer parks tend to be good candidates for this type of three-way partnership among the scoreboard supplier, buyer and advertisers, Steinkamp says.

Don't assume, however, that scoreboard suppliers are beating down doors with offers of free equipment. Lords went through a lengthy application process involving lots of paperwork to prove to his supplier that Madison High School hosted enough games and drew ample enough crowds to appeal to advertisers.

Settling a Score

Gary Gaines had a severe case of scoreboard envy.

When a neighboring district unveiled a spectacular football scoreboard with video replay capability, the scrolling graphics on his schools' 25-year-old board seemed woefully dull and out-of-date.

Gaines is the athletic director for the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, where Ratliff Stadium arguably makes for the town's most exciting nightlife, at least on Friday nights during football season. Home of the Odessa High School Broncos and the Permian High School Panthers, the world-class, 19,300-capacity stadium even captured the attention of Hollywood—Ratliff was the stage for the 2004 film Friday Night Lights. The stadium has been called "the epicenter of Texas high school football." So, if any school district deserves a scoreboard with video replay, Gaines felt certain his was it.

However, there was no spare cash in the coffers for a new scoreboard, and $750,000 systems don't appear out of nowhere. Or do they? Somehow, San Angelo ISD had gotten one. Gaines decided to ask the district's athletic director, Rex Scofield, how he'd financed such a pricey scoreboard. Scofield assured him that the transaction had not involved the signing over of a first-born child.

Ector County ISD followed San Angelo's lead by entering into an agreement with a major scoreboard maker that allows advertisements—sold by the company's marketing department—to be shown during game time. In exchange, they received an integrated scoring, video and sound system for no money down.

"It might take 10 years to pay it off," Gaines says. But with the manufacturer handling the ad sales, the system basically pays for itself, he adds.

A point of pride for the football system, the LED display shows live and recorded images, colorful animation and vivid graphics. A custom fixed-digit LED scoreboard to the right of the video board shows the home and guest scores, down, time outs left, to go, ball on and quarter. A second scoreboard is located on the opposite end of the field. The larger of the two hardwired units measures 19 feet by 14 feet.

Showcasing the scoreboard's full potential takes a team effort. Gaines says three people run video cameras—two on the sidelines and one in press box. Three others run the scoreboard, and two operate the video board.

The referees call penalties over the scoreboard's built-in sound system by way of a wireless microphone.

Needless to say, Gaines' scoreboard envy has evaporated.

The latest and greatest

The willingness of schools to actively court corporate sponsors is a result, perhaps, of another emerging trend in the scoreboard industry.

"From the top to the bottom, facilities want more than just a basic system that provides the score and the time," Steinkamp says. "They want to provide individual player statistics, track statistics electronically, and have messages and graphics to fire up the fans."

Sound also enhances spectacle.

"So people are starting to pay a lot more attention to their sound systems," he adds, and in many cases are opting for scoreboards with built-in speakers.

At some high schools, video scoreboards with replay capabilities are cropping up, but their six-figure price tags are prohibitive for most districts.

At the collegiate and pro levels, scoreboards have begun to reflect each organization's need to be No. 1, and the sky's the limit when it comes to spending. Right now, the NBA Bobcats of Charlotte, N.C., are the team to beat when it comes to scoreboards. In November, the new Charlotte Bobcats Arena unveiled a four-sided, center-hung scoreboard that reportedly boasts the largest video screens and highest resolution of any other arena in the nation. Indeed, NBA Commissioner David Stern has said it's the best scoreboard he's ever seen.

The scoreboard features four 28-foot-by-16-foot LED screens that can change throughout the game to display full-screen, high-definition videos—such as on-court action, replays, fan scans, promotions or advertisements—or any divided-screen combination of video, animations, graphics, text or scores.

"The screens essentially are blank canvases," says Barry Silberman, Charlotte Bobcats Arena's chief operating officer and the visionary behind the new scoreboard.

In addition to the four horizontal displays, the scoreboard features four vertical LED displays on the corners of the structure, which can be used for advertising.

The arena also has an LED ribbon display that circles the entire rim of the lower seating bowl, plus two other ribbon displays—for a total of 1,265 linear feet—that run parallel to the basketball court sidelines on the upper-level fascia. In addition, the backboards are equipped with see-through shot clocks. Consisting of LED digits sandwiched between two clear polycarbonate panels, see-through shot clocks have since cropped up at other arenas, as the traditional metal-encased timers were visually obtrusive.

Thinking outside the box scores

But what really sets the Bobcats' scoreboard apart and "gives it personality," as Silberman puts it, is a three-dimensional, to-scale replica of the Charlotte skyline that accounts for nearly half of the structure's height. Built by Hollywood set designers, the skyline surrounds a circular, 360-degree movie screen. Eight projectors offer seamless images for an ever-changing skyline. For example, the sun could be shown sinking behind the buildings or fireworks could light up the sky. A hot-air balloon or a blimp towing a Bobcats banner could arc across the sky. Around Christmastime, Santa flew his sleigh over the buildings.

"Actually, it was the Bobcats' mascot, Rufus, dressed up as Santa," Silberman says.

The windows in the buildings light up, all together or in clusters to create different effects. The largest of the skyscrapers is 18 feet tall. The skyline, which sits on top of the scoreboard, brings the structure's dimensions to 36-feet-by-38-feet and its weight to 80,000 pounds.

"People are always surprised by the sheer size, and they're absolutely blown away by the quality and size of the LED picture," Silberman says. "But the thing that makes people gasp is the skyline."

That's not surprising, he adds, since scoreboard designers generally give more thought to the lighted displays than anything else.

"The actual structure of scoreboards hasn't evolved or kept pace with technology," he says.

Beholding the behemoth scoreboard for the first time, some basketball fans worried that its powers might be over-the-top and over-used. But Silberman says steps have been taken to make certain that the scoreboard doesn't overwhelm.

"We use the scoreboard to punctuate the action on the court at appropriate times and to get fans on their feet," he says.

Down to the wire

No one had ever designed a scoreboard like the Charlotte Bobcats Arena's. To pull it off, Silberman assembled a dream team of theatrical and theme-park designers, along with sound and lighting experts with rock-concert experience. When it was all said and done, the scoreboard, electronics and sound system cost about $8.85 million.

But most facilities that buy scoreboards have more pedestrian issues to address, such as whether a wireless communication connection between the scoreboard and control console beats a hardwired connection.

The shift toward wireless is perhaps the most pervasive advance in scoreboard technology besides LED. The setup of most hardwired scoreboards involves a data cable running from the electrically powered scoreboard to an electrically powered control console, often located in the press box. In wireless setups, the scoreboard still plugs into an electrical outlet, but a portable, battery-powered control console sends data to the scoreboard through radio signals.

"Picture something like a large TV remote—that's basically what these wireless controllers look like," Webb says, adding that scorekeepers have a lot more mobility as a result.

When installing a replacement scoreboard where cables already exist, it generally is cheaper to go with a hardwired configuration. Alternately, some buyers switch to wireless but retain the wire hookups as a backup. But wireless is the wave of the future, Webb contends.

The desire for freedom and flexibility in the parks and recreation segment, coupled with the need for affordability, is driving development and sales of lightweight, portable scoreboards. These versatile models can be used for any league sport or tournament that is timed and scored, including soccer, football, baseball, softball, basketball, lacrosse and hockey. Powered by rechargeable batteries, the scoreboards are controlled by handheld wireless remotes that can hook like a cell phone onto the scorekeeper's belt. Some models have an adjustable brightness level for indoor or outdoor use. Most have built-in handles as well as built-in stands and fence-hanging brackets.

When a heavier-duty scoreboard is called for, most industry veterans advise facilities to buy the best model they can afford, however, where budgets are limited, it is possible to start with a basic scoreboard and add features, components and accessories as additional funding becomes available. Upgrades could include sponsor signs, an animation screen, roster panels and player-stat panels. Depending on the model of scoreboard, certain desirable features, such as timers, possession indicators and player-foul panels, might be now-or-never options at the time of purchase. Make sure you understand the extent to which a scoreboard can be retrofitted before you commit to buying it.

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