Grand-Slam Scoreboards

Entertainment & timing technology come together

By Brian Summerfield

If you've ever attended a Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field, you understand just how much a scoreboard can contribute to the overall atmosphere of an event. The ballpark, which was constructed in 1914, features a scoreboard strategically placed above the outfield bleachers where the rowdiest fans sit. Like Wrigley Field itself, the scoreboard at the "Friendly Confines" is a sort of hallowed relic to the Cubs faithful. Every run and pitching statistic displayed on the scoreboard is put up there by hand, thanks to ballpark personnel who actually sit inside of it. Also, Old Glory—as well as flags representing every team in the National League—waves in the wind above it. All of this creates a very deliberate back-in-time effect.

You don't have to look far beyond Wrigley Field to find other examples of how scoreboards cultivate and enhance the overall feel of a particular setting. In fact, across town at U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago White Sox fans also relish in their scoreboard, which is modern yet traditional. On one hand, it has large, high-tech video displays, and also includes many more prominent advertisements for corporate sponsors than the Wrigley Field scoreboard. However, it also features a row of colorful pinwheels that carried over from "Old" Comiskey Park across the street. Whenever the White Sox get a run, the sky above those pinwheels lights up with fireworks, which brings the crowd's attention back to—you guessed it—the scoreboard.

The point is that a scoreboard can and should be an integral part of any experience in any entertainment or athletics venue. It should reflect and blend in with its surroundings, but still be eye-catching. After all, everyone will see it, and there are some people in the audience who will spend more time looking at the scoreboard than anything else at the event. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the key issues and considerations involved with acquiring, installing and maintaining a scoreboard.


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."


Now, the (sort of) bad news

Given all of the new and sophisticated technology involved with modern scoreboards—above all, the LED Matrix scoreboards, which employ some of the most advanced display technologies—coming up with the right solutions can be a rather complicated affair. The scoreboards of today have so many complex elements going into them, ranging from video recording to timing systems to graphical layouts. Of course, the level and frequency of use of these components will vary from venue to venue.

Martens reported that he had encountered many such trials since the scoreboard and its accessories had been installed in Vincennes University's gymnasium late last year.

"The biggest challenge has been getting the static advertisements formatted so they look correct, not distorted, on the board," he said. "Also, we've been getting the video techniques down to where they look good on the board. What I mean by that is that the pixel spacing we have is 12 millimeters, which, if you're shooting half-court in a basketball situation with a camera, the images are going to be grainy and it's going to be hard to tell who is who. But if you take tight shots, the picture is very crisp, clear and sharp. Those are things we're having to work on internally with our camera operators, because this is different from what they're used to doing. In television, you can get away with shooting wider shots, but with video, you have to have tighter shots. It's also challenging to get the pre-loaded graphics and animations in the right format, but we've worked through that. Things are a lot better now than they were three months ago."

Implementation also can be complicated, as it requires a complex division of labor, Diericks added. "It can sometimes be a problem getting them installed—the cost does not include installation," he said. "We try to do that ourselves, with the help of some local people who have some equipment that can help us lift those into place for us. It involves getting all that lined up at the right time and coordinating it so that everything's up and running by a particular date."

One particularly problematic issue is timing technology. The people operating the scoreboard need to be able to get certain graphics, sounds and animations up as soon as possible during and after significant moments in games, ceremonies and other events. They should have the ability to show a player's picture and profile immediately following an exceptional athletic feat, a list of top graduates in a class, an animated ad from a sponsor and various other visual impressions. The window of time after a significant occurrence or announcement is very small, and the corresponding image on the scoreboard has to appear as close to those as possible to have an emotional impact on the audience.

Thus, the communications system between the scoreboard and its operator ought to be of utmost concern to the person in charge of procurement. Speed, reliability and appearance are all key factors in decisions around timing systems and the communications that run them.

One tricky decision is whether to use wired or wireless signals. Wireless is definitely hot right now, but it has a few issues that you must be prepared to deal with. First of all, you must factor in the size of the facility. A wireless signal degrades over distance, and if a scoreboard is going to be far away from the operator, the message might not always get there. Also, these signals are highly susceptible to interference. Compounding these problems are the myriad physical obstructions in both indoor and outdoor environments.

Alternatively, wired scoreboards are virtually unfailing, providing the "five nines" (99.999 percent) of availability to which any technology aspires. The rare occasions when these systems don't work include if there's a power outage or a lightning strike, or if the wires physically degrade over time. And this takes quite a while: The actual equipment is much more durable and long-lasting than fragile wireless tools.

Yet the wireless technologies provide a certain portability and flexibility that wired ones can't match. Because of the nature of the latter, the scoreboards they run on are stationary, whereas wireless boards are transportable. Wireless technologies "free" scoreboards, allowing facilities directors to bring in various kinds to suit their needs. (Obviously, installation is less expensive and problematic, if somewhat precarious because of the breakable gear.) They also have a minimal impact on their surroundings, unlike stationary scoreboards that require alterations to structures or land to accommodate the wiring.

Most facility directors don't have the sophisticated knowledge of video, audio, computer software and graphic design that today's scoreboards need to be effective. In fact, very few people at all do. So how can you resolve a lack of understanding with the need to provide attendees with the most engaging and exciting scoreboard displays?


All the Right Scoreboard Stuff

When selecting a scoreboard, it's important to make sure it meets these criteria:

THE RIGHT LOOK

Appearance is an important aspect of a scoreboard, and choices involving scoreboards need to take into account both the intended audience and the venue. "You need to take a look at the particular place where it's going to be used," Diericks said. "They come in different sizes. We have a great big field house, and we had to buy bigger boards for that compared to what we'd use in a smaller gymnasium."

Indeed, a scoreboard's size in relation to a space is one of many factors to consider. "We're on the borderline of the board being too large for our application," Martens said. "We're in a smaller gymnasium. By the same token, it looks good from far away and close up."

THE RIGHT PRICE

Obviously, price will weigh heavily in any decision around scoreboards, particularly since the funding comes from very limited budgets that are usually financed by taxpayers, student fees or corporate sponsorship. In any case, the people responsible for procurement will be limited by a factor beyond their control.

"What we try to do is get local people to help sponsor the scoreboard by putting ads on it," Diericks said. "They initially pick up the tab for the scoreboard, but we try to get the best price that we can, so we're looking out for their dollar as well. The athletic director takes care of the procurement of the funds, then tells me to go ahead and get the boards."

However, when it comes to scoreboard purchases, it shouldn't be about trading off functionality for low cost. "Price is always a determining factor, although it's not the ultimate determining factor," Martens explained. "Price probably has a little more weight than the others. All of them overlap each other, though. It's a perceived value. There's nothing in concrete terms where you can say, 'If the video does this, it's worth this amount of dollars to me.' You just have to project in the future. Think about what you currently have and what this might be able to do for you as far as advertising, public relations and bringing people to events are concerned."

THE RIGHT PURPOSE

To be effective for various events, the scoreboard needs to serve many often dramatically different functions. For example, each sport has different scoring systems, and a good board—or set of boards—has to accommodate them all. Outside of athletics, events like pep rallies, graduations and awards ceremonies will demand other operations, which will most likely require an entirely distinct approach to video, audio and text.

"You also have to take a look at whether it's going to be used for multiple purposes, like, say, wrestling and basketball," Diericks said. "Some of them have dual capabilities."

THE RIGHT SERVICE

Both Diericks and Martens cited service as a key consideration in procurement decisions for scoreboards, timing systems and related technologies. The fact is that this is very complex equipment that will occasionally break or fail to perform, and you need to have people ready and able to service it when it does.

Plus, the better the service is on the front end, the less you'll need on the back end. "Our board was installed late October, and maintenance issues are pretty much nonexistent so far," Martens said. "We did have one issue with a module that came from that factory that was bad. On the procurement side, it's been a little slower—getting the little bugs worked out of the system and the computer set up right—but from a maintenance standpoint, it's been pretty seamless."



Leave it to the experts

Essentially, the most informed individuals on scoreboards and timing systems and how they work are the manufacturers and vendors who sell the products. They invariably have the most knowledge and experience with these technologies, because they work with design, implementation and maintenance day in and out. Yet they're also self-interested parties when it comes to scoreboards, and it does them no disservice to say so. Obviously, they're in the business to make money, and it should surprise no one that they are acting on the profit motive.

Therefore, you should trust the people who are trying to sell you their products on good faith, but ask for live demonstrations of the scoreboards in question. For instance, Martens got a preview of his vendor's offerings and a sense of what Vincennes University might purchase during a visit to another site that had installed the scoreboard. "We did an on-site inspection in a hockey rink in Ontario, Canada," he said. "The board was a little larger there, but the arena was a lot larger too."

Also, try to build a good working relationship with your supplier, as this will help them understand your needs better. Investment maven Warren Buffett's philosophy on precious metals and gems can be applied here: "If you don't know jewelry, then know the jeweler."

Hence, one quality to seek in scoreboard vendors is their physical proximity to your facilities. As Diericks pointed out, this is conducive to forming a good connection with the seller. "(Our vendor) is located approximately 30 to 40 minutes away from our school district," he said. "They're readily available. The salesman we had was instrumental in helping us get the right boards for the right place."

What's more, local suppliers usually can get you the equipment you need sooner than a larger company, which might have its nearest distribution center hundreds or even thousands of miles away. "If a company was X number of dollars cheaper than the other two in a formal bid process, and the other two companies were more expensive but could get the product to me on time and had someone locally who could service a product, then that would be more of a factor than just price alone," Martens said.

You'll also want to make sure that the company in question is well established and has extensive experience with the specs of your scoreboard. Martens said that the video for the scoreboard has been an occasional source of frustration. "The learning curve has been a little steeper for them on our project because it was the first time they had done it," he said.

That notion of top-notch service should be paramount in figuring out which vendors to go with. Sellers who serve the needs of their customers well will make life much easier for the folks calling the shots at venues. For instance, Martens said he was quite satisfied with the service he'd received from a recent service check on the cabling system holding the scoreboard up in the middle of the Vincennes University gym.

"They've done a fantastic job of servicing the customer and making sure all of our needs have been met," he said. "When you have companies that are doing things like that, it makes you feel more comfortable with the decisions you've made."



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