Know the Score

Scoreboard Options Run the Gamut

By Dawn Klingensmith

In the past two years, the most notable development in the scoreboard industry is a steep rise in the number of colleges and high schools opting for LED full-matrix systems previously seen only in professional sports arenas. Manufacturers are also reporting spikes in sales of full-color message centers with tighter resolutions.

Sophisticated scoring and display systems are an option for more and more high schools because the cost of the technology has come down and the systems' digital video capabilities enable schools to air commercials during sporting events, which in time covers the cost of the scoreboard. But while high schools with ambitious booster clubs or deep-pocketed corporate sponsors can procure the necessary funding for the latest and greatest in scoreboard technology, for the vast majority of parks and recreation departments and youth sports associations, such advanced scoreboards are far out of reach due to budget constraints. In fact, for some organizations, owning a scoreboard of any type would be a luxury. The Spokane Youth Sports Association in Washington, for example, is set to start construction this fall on five new softball fields and eight soccer fields, none of which is likely to have a scoreboard.

"It would be nice to have one signature field with a scoreboard, but that's more of a dream than a possibility," said Executive Director Philip Helean, adding that the association's soccer teams rely on parents keeping score with a pen and paper on the sidelines.

With budget restrictions in mind, before examining the increasingly popular LED full-matrix scoring systems (which in some cases actually can be acquired for free, provided the recipient—usually a high school or college that can prove it draws sizable crowds to sporting competitions—enters into a marketing agreement whereby the manufacturer sells ad time to sponsors and pockets a percentage of the proceeds), this article will explore the full range of scoreboard options on the market, starting with the simplest and most inexpensive.

Economical Options

"In today's marketplace, there is a scoreboard available that will meet the needs of every type of organization—small or large, expensive or inexpensive, it's all out there," said Bethany Reeder, marketing director for a Murray, Ky.-based scoreboard manufacturer.

Though decidedly low-tech, flip-style scoreboards get the job done, and some sell for as little as $30. They show home and guest teams' scores, usually up to 99 points, on laminated or plastic cards that the scorekeeper flips to reveal new digits as the game progresses. Also available are foldable baseball scoreboards with magnetic numbers and space to record the number of runs for each of nine innings.

The desire for freedom and flexibility in the parks and recreation segment, coupled with the need for affordability, is driving development and sales of portable multisport scoreboards, and LED lighting—now the industry standard—is now widely available in this relatively inexpensive class of scoreboard. Indoor tabletop models with super-bright, 100,000-hour-rated LED digits sell for a few hundred dollars. Portable indoor scoreboards, as well as lightweight, fence-mountable outdoor models, are usually battery-powered and controlled by wireless, handheld remotes.

"Handheld wireless controllers are a recent trend in the industry," said Raquel Ehlmann, associate marketing manager for a Greenville, Ill.-based scoreboard manufacturer.

Such controls offer "extreme battery life, great signal strength and secure networking with the ability to communicate with multiple scoreboards," she added. "Because this control is economical, we have found many little leagues and park and rec facilities make the handheld control part of their standard equipment for coaches; therefore, no one is scrambling around looking for a key to the equipment room prior to a game."

Large, sturdy, electrically charged portable scoreboards intended for outdoor use offer large display areas and feature rugged wheels and handles for ease of mobility. Some of the higher-end portable scoreboards are designed to accommodate static signage for sponsor recognition.

Let the Sun Shine

Nationwide efforts to "go green," along with a number of other factors, are such that solar-powered scoreboards soon will have their day in the sun, so to speak.

"Zoning obstacles, ordinances and trenching around utilities in remote areas are all reasons users are moving to solar power," said Rachel Ehlmann, associate marketing manager for a leading scoreboard manufacturer.

Panels soak up sunlight, which powers the scoreboard, and backup batteries are intended to ensure continuous operation in the event of inadequate sunlight.

Solar scoreboards cut costs by eliminating the need to dig a trench and run wiring conduit.

"With the advent of wireless communication, there is no need to run communication cable to the product; therefore, by using wireless devices, the entire display can be operated without any of these obstacles," Ehlmann explained.

The not-so-bright side: "Solar products require a battery to store the power when there is no sunlight. When running an all-day tournament, there is a potential of not having a full day of sunlight, and you may have to replace the battery midday," Ehlmann added.

Raising the Bar

The Rolling Meadows Park District in Illinois, which operates 13 baseball and softball fields, six soccer fields, one football field and a multiuse gymnasium, made do with flip-style scoreboards until 2006, when it partnered with an affiliated youth football organization to install its first electronic scoreboard. The football organization bought the scoreboard for $4,000, and the park district pitched in to cover the cost of digging the hole and pouring the cement, which brought the total purchase and installation price to $5,500. Foundation costs can be formidable, but proper installations involve some engineering, and cutting corners is inadvisable. Scoreboards are top-heavy planes that must withstand the force of high winds, and the expertise required to ensure their structural integrity doesn't come cheap.

Last year, the park district purchased an electrical wall-mounted scoreboard for the gymnasium, but accumulating enough cash to do so was no easy feat. In fact, Athletic Supervisor David Ray began budgeting for it several years in advance, often resorting to refereeing basketball games himself to save the $40 to $60 fee per game that professional refs were demanding. And all this effort and thrift went toward a relatively low-priced scoreboard—at $2,500, it was much less than the average cost of similar scoreboards typically seen in high schools.

"Cost was definitely one of our main priorities," Ray said. "We needed something that fit within our budget and the context of our gym. We didn't need some massive scoreboard, but we didn't want to undersell ourselves, either. We wanted a more professional look than the tabletop scoreboards we'd been using.".

Ray added that his economizing was worth it: "The parents and kids have really enjoyed having the bigger scoreboard."

Price, Programming, Place

Besides price, the main factors that should guide an organization's scoreboard selection are programming, as well as the size and type of sporting facility for which the scoreboard is intended.

"Probably the first consideration should be which sport is played most often at the complex," said Jeff Reeser, national sales manager for a Des Moines, Iowa-based scoreboard manufacturer. "If the complex is geared to one sport and other activities are only played sparingly, I would recommend purchasing a scoreboard in the primary sport's product line. … If the balance of sports played is more of an even split, I would recommend a multipurpose scoreboard."

A common error buyers make is erecting what they believe is an adequately sized scoreboard, but then it ends up being too small. Although bigger is not necessarily better, overall scale and spectators' relationship to the scoreboard need to be taken into account. A rule of thumb for readability is to allow one inch of numeral height for every 40 to 50 feet of viewing distance.

"Rear-illuminated captions and sponsor signage are recommended on scoreboards that are primarily used at night," Reeser added.

Another factor besides size, brightness and clarity that should be taken into consideration is durability. Outdoor scoreboards must withstand wind and wetness, so sturdy, rustproof cabinet construction with a durable finish is required. Polycarbonate windows can be installed over LED numerals for further protection against the elements and for impact resistance in the event of an errant ball. For indoor scoreboards, protective nets or cages are available, or the LEDs can be slightly recessed so a poorly aimed basketball won't burst the bulbs.

More Bang for the Buck

For athletic facilities where more than one sport is played, multiple scoreboards need not be purchased. Basic multipurpose scoreboards display time, score and period in a fixed-digit configuration. The Rolling Meadows Park District opted for this type of scoreboard for its football field and gymnasium because flexibility was a key criterion. Currently, football and basketball teams are the only ones using the outdoor and indoor scoreboards, respectively. "But we left it open-ended so if we needed or wanted to use the field for other sports, that would be an option for us," Ray said.

Teams that share a facility with a single multipurpose scoreboard need not settle for a fixed-digit model, provided they have an ample budget. LED full-matrix scoreboards, as well as front projection systems, have no fixed digits and therefore provide unlimited flexibility and universality. Although matrix scoreboard operators have the freedom to start out with what basically amounts to a blank canvas on which animation, graphics, advertising, and individual players' photos and stats can be displayed, most models come with preprogrammed shortcuts so switching from one sport to another is neither time-consuming nor complicated.

The Latest and Greatest

Drawing from its fund for emerging technology, Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio, purchased a computer-operated projection system and takes full advantage of its versatility.

"The gymnasium system is so much more than a scoreboard," said Kenneth Collura, director of communications and instructional technologies for the Diocese of Columbus' Catholic school system, of which Bishop Hartley is a part. "I have the statistical sports package that provides game and player statistics, customizable scoreboards, and video input from external sources like cameras, television, DVD players and the like.

"Obviously, the sports features get the most attention. Having unique displays for basketball, volleyball and wrestling has been rewarding to parents and athletes. But because the gym space is used for non-athletic activities as well, the system has proved invaluable for graduation ceremony displays, assemblies, fundraising events such as bingo and auctions, and masses and liturgies. I use all the bells and whistles."

Collura said that according to his research, the cost of such systems ranges from $40,000 to $80,000. His is on the high end because of its audio system and other add-ons and accessories, and because, in the two years since its installation, he has opted to mount screens in each of the four corners of the gym. Systems like these transform facilities into multimedia venues in which movies and music videos can be played for parties and dances; pep rallies can be enhanced with audio and on-screen content; breaking news can be aired to assembled faculty and students with a TV tuner connection; distance learning opportunities can take place with the inclusion of conferencing equipment; and game footage can be reviewed right on the court instead of in the locker room.

More basic software-driven projection scoreboards are available at a significantly lower cost, making use of a laptop, a projector and flat-screen monitors to virtually replicate the appearance and function of a normal scoreboard, without extraneous graphics capabilities. Keystrokes and a mouse are used to update scores and other data. Some systems use touch pads instead.

Ads? Egads!

"Large-screen video displays and virtual scoreboards may indeed gain popularity in the future as software-driven displays create customization possibilities for the end user and as advancements in technology lower costs," Reeder said. "Currently, however, standard LED scoreboards remain the definite trend."

While projection systems and LED full-matrix displays are prohibitively expensive for smaller schools and most parks and recreation departments, there has been a rather rapid migration in the past two to five years of this sophisticated technology from professional and large-college sports to high schools. One of the systems' biggest selling points is the opportunity for revenue generation through sales of ad spots, which generally are handled by a marketing firm associated with the scoreboard manufacturer.

However, schools also are "approaching businesses within their community such as banks and insurance agents, which now gives them the ability to own their own scoreboard without having to enter into long-term lease agreements with third-party vendors," Ehlmann said.

Compared with traditional static banner ads, these systems support fully dynamic, media-rich advertising that better captures audience attention, and attracts and displays a greater number of sponsors. And at the end of the game, the ads disappear from view.

Nonetheless, in the world of youth and high school sports, offsetting the cost of a scoreboard through ad sales is controversial. On the plus side, ad-sponsored scoreboards bring a major-league feel to high school sports. Students and parents can experience the thrill of seeing athletes' photos and stats in lights. Animation can be used to rally the team and spectators. And message centers can be put to practical use, such as announcing upcoming school or community events, or displaying post-game traffic reports.

However, among school districts that consider entering into marketing arrangements with scoreboard manufacturers, the issue is invariably raised as to whether it is appropriate to air ads in academic settings, including school sports facilities.

Two scoreboard manufacturers reported seeing little resistance to the idea, or no more than would be expected, but for several years, the media have been tracking a national backlash against commercialism in schools in general and in sports ranging from pee wee on up to professional leagues. (At the professional level, after an outcry from fans and Congress, Major League Baseball ditched plans to slap Spiderman 2 logos on bases and on-deck circles during the 2004 season.) The Washington, D.C.-based organization called Commercial Alert, which aims to "rid the nation's schools of corporate marketers," according to its Web site, is a major impetus behind the backlash.

Indeed, too much teamwork between advertisers and educators can backfire. Texas Longhorn fans were rightfully proud when the University of Texas at Austin unveiled one of the largest high-definition LED full-matrix scoreboards in the world at the start of the 2006 football season. Almost as wide as the football field over which it towers, the 59-foot-wide, 7,370-square-foot scoreboard is the centerpiece of an $8 million audiovisual upgrade to the Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. With affection and awe, fans nicknamed the scoreboard "Godzillatron."

The scoreboard's sheer size and loud volume capabilities made it prime real estate for advertisers, who at times were using more than 50 percent of the screen to promote products and services. Disgruntled spectators renamed the scoreboard "Adzillatron" and, according to newspaper reports, began shouting out their intention to boycott businesses they felt were monopolizing screen space.

Scoreboard Selection Criteria

APPEARANCE: Keep in mind that scoreboards are turned off the majority of the time, so it should look appealing when it's not lit.

DURABILITY: For impact and weather resistance, casing should be made of rugged materials such as aluminum with a powder-coated or baked-on enamel finish.

MAINTENANCE: No matter which scoreboard you choose, the total cost of ownership, including maintenance, needs to be factored in. Although the initial purchase price may seem low, the cost of maintenance, service and upkeep over the scoreboard's lifespan needs to be determined to arrive at its actual cost.

WATER RESISTANCE: Outdoor scoreboards must withstand wind and wetness, so sturdy, rustproof cabinet construction with a durable finish is required. For aquatics applications, choose a manufacturer with a proven success record for designing for such settings. Due to extreme humidity, the supplier's circuitry housing must be engineered to resist corrosion.

BRIGHTNESS: For outdoor applications, reflective LED digits may allow for adequate brightness in direct sunlight. Keep ambient lighting conditions in mind when considering an indoor projection scoreboard, as some projection systems aren't as sharp in bright light.

READABILITY: A rule of thumb for numeral height is 1 inch for every 40 to 50 feet of viewing distance.

CONTROL OPTIONS: All-wireless, battery-powered portable scoreboards are good options for little leagues and parks and recreation systems. For permanently installed LED systems, wireless remote control is an option, though the scoreboard itself will still be tethered to an electrical outlet.

WARRANTY: Especially when investing a considerable amount of money, it is crucial to understand what type of warranty the manufacturer offers and whether its service department will continue to offer consultation free of charge after the warranty period expires. Lamps, cables and switches may not be covered by the warranty.

The Upside of Sponsorship

Meanwhile, high schools trying to determine whether ad sales are an acceptable means of generating revenue are usually gauging potentialities beyond acquiring a fancy scoreboard. For these cash-strapped schools, once the scoreboard "pays for itself" through ad sales, additional revenue can be put toward woefully under-funded academic programs.

Moreover, "There are several other factors that come into play regarding LED matrix models," Ehlmann said. "When considering LED message centers, budgets are being allocated from different departments and sources, such as IT, safety and boosters. For example, students from mass communications or the art department are creating animations as part of the curriculum. Cross-promotion within departments also occurs, such as promoting a school play at a sporting event or announcing concession items to the crowd. The need to communicate with the public, faculty and students is increasing daily. In a world of instant information, LED technology allows facilities to maintain updated content, sell advertising and sponsorship, and relay public service announcements at an accelerated pace."

Collura, who is relying on ad revenues to pay back the emerging technology fund that made Bishop Hartley High School's five-figure scoreboard purchase possible, said the commercial aspect differs from what he expected. "Our experience has been that this is a deeper opportunity and different in scope than what we originally thought," he explained. "Colleges, parent-owned businesses and local organizations seem to be the most interested in the opportunity. The program is growing annually."

Setting aside the pros and cons of exposing children and teens to more advertising, it's indisputable that schools entering into marketing contracts with manufacturers or otherwise using ad sales to buoy their budget end up with higher-quality scoreboards than they could otherwise afford.

Down to the Wire

The wireless controls discussed earlier are not limited to small portable scoreboards. Wireless network communications, whereby a scoreboard and control console are linked via radio signals without a hardwire connection, also are available for state-of-the-art, electrical LED systems, though the amount of information users transmit operating these high-end systems generally would call for fiber-optic or coaxial cable connections to be on the safe side. Though here to stay, wireless technology is still under development, and for larger data transmissions, some experts are concerned about its reliability.

In wireless setups for permanent LED scoreboards, as opposed to portable ones, the display unit still plugs into an electrical outlet, but the control console generally is battery-powered and can be moved around.

Ray of the Rolling Meadows Park District had the option of going the wireless route when purchasing an LED scoreboard for the gymnasium but decided not to, in part because the feature cost an additional $500. Moreover, "A hard line is always guaranteed to work," he said. "You don't need to worry about a battery dying in the middle of a game."

On the plus side, wireless controls eliminate cable clutter, can reduce installation costs, and can be used to operate multiple scoreboards at once. Cabled and wireless scoreboards can be integrated, which accommodates auxiliary display systems such as shot clocks and additional timers within the same network setup.

Whichever type of scoreboard an organization opts to buy, at the time of purchase, it is generally advisable to spring for the best model within the budget. It is possible, though, to start with a basic scoreboard and add components and accessories as additional funding becomes available. "It's always easier to start with all the necessities instead of making alterations to a scoreboard that's already installed in the field; however, it is very doable to add features later," Reeser said.

Popular add-on features to base-model boards include sponsorship signs, LED message centers and video displays, player-stat panels, end-of-period lights, shot clocks, pitch-speed display, delay-of-game timers and wireless control options. Consumers should make certain they understand the extent to which a scoreboard can be retrofitted before shelling out any cash.

Scoreboards as Architecture

"Despite all the technological advancements, scoreboards have looked relatively the same for more than 70 years. Rectangular scoreboards have been the norm for decades—until now," said Reeder, who represents a manufacturing company that recently introduced a new line of LED scoreboards in a range of shapes, such as sports balls and equipment, states, team mascots and flags.

At the professional level, scoreboards are rising to the level of architecture. Perhaps the most stunning exemplar of this trend is the four-sided, center-hung LED scoreboard belonging to the NBA Bobcats of Charlotte, N.C. The scoreboard features four 28-foot-by-16-foot LED screens that can change with lightning speed 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. In addition to the four horizontal displays, the scoreboard has four vertical LED displays on the corners of the structure, which can be used for advertising.

But what sets the scoreboard apart is the massive three-dimensional, to-scale replica of the Charlotte skyline that sits atop the scoreboard and accounts for nearly half of the structure's height. 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, built by Hollywood set designers, brings the structure's dimensions to 36-feet-by-38-feet and its weight to a staggering 80,000 pounds.

The Kansas City Royals' ballpark unveiled a new $8.3 million scoreboard at the start of the 2008 baseball season, and it, too, features an architectural element—a massive, gold-colored crown is perched atop the 105-by-85-foot high-definition screen. According to one news report, a staff of 17 people is needed to operate the scoreboard.

While such systems are impressive, the vast majority of consumers in the market for a scoreboard will be compelled by budget constraints to settle for a model that basically keeps track of who's winning or losing. With that in mind, there's a winning model for just about every organization and budget.

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