Scoreboard Showdowns

The Latest & Greatest Is All Part of the Game

By Dawn Klingensmith

In competitive sports, it's not good enough anymore to have the best team. Especially at the high school level, it's a matter of pride to have the most imposing scoreboard, as well.

A puny board with lit numerals and a painted-on mascot? Pathetic. Fans, coaches, parents and players want audio, video and pertinent messaging. Schools and other sports organizations want sponsorship opportunities besides static panels.

One of the most exciting—and perhaps surprising—developments in scoreboard technology is how within reach high-definition video has become, said Angela Hatton, marketing manager for a Brookings, S.D., scoreboard manufacturer. "It's amazing the number of schools that one might perceive as being too small to have video," yet they have it, she added. What's considered merely "adequate" these days would have been unreachable in the recent past, and expectations of fairly advanced technology is extending even to rural areas, Hatton said.

The decreasing cost of the technology, as well as competitiveness, is driving the trend toward bigger and better. "Talk to any booster club, and they want a scoreboard that's equal or superior to the school just up the road," Hatton said. "There's a 'keeping up with the Joneses' factor, plus there's the realization that it's affordable, once they see that a rival school with comparable financial resources has bought one."

Although professional sports obviously are in an entirely different league, they have evolved the definition of "scoreboard" so that people seldom picture a board serving no other purpose than to keep track of points. The Dallas Cowboys' new football stadium perhaps offers the most extreme example of a scoreboard "on steroids," so to speak. The seven-story video board weighs a staggering 1.2 million pounds, and at a cost of $40 million, it alone cost more than the entire construction of Texas Stadium, the Cowboys' previous home. It takes 10 people to operate the scoreboard. Given a tour of Cowboy Stadium prior to its grand opening, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Vahe Gregorian later wrote, "It was clear there would be a choice to be made between watching events on the field or the monstrous board."

He also noted that T-shirts proclaiming "Ours is Bigger" were available for sale at concession stands.

In calling the scoreboard "monstrous," Gregorian was right in step with a contingent of sports fans who yearn for the return of simpler scoreboards, because the super-sized ones can detract from rather than enhance the game.

Further down the pecking order, a disturbing consequence of scoreboard one-upmanship in the budget-minded high-school sector is shortcutting in the wrong areas—namely installation, which has led to several incidences of potentially deadly structural failures.

So, what else is driving demand for bigger and better scoreboards? And might there eventually be a backlash against scoreboards that divert attention away from the game?

Scout It Out
Advice on Choosing a Scoreboard

If you're in the market for a new scoreboard, it's advisable to visit several sports facilities comparable to yours to see how different makes and models perform. Prior to designing the Ford Center's new scoreboard for the NBA Thunder, the key decision-makers visited several NBA, college and NFL stadiums and arenas. This scouting expedition included trips to Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, home of the 76ers, and Washington D.C.'s Verizon Center, home of the Wizards. According to the Thunder's Web site, those two venues had the greatest influence.

Scott Chitwood, co-founder of Carolina Courts, a privately owned basketball and volleyball facility in Indian Trail, N.C., also visited several sports venues, not only to check out their scoreboards in action but also to ask about the facilities' experiences.

"My advice is this: If I were a high school booster club, for example, I'd call around to several other high school booster clubs and ask about their scoreboard's performance and the company's track record, and whether the local sales people offer continued, individualized support," Chitwood said.

After research and legwork, Chitwood decided that durability, customer service and the scoreboard manufacturer's reputation topped his list of selection criteria.

He went with a manufacturer whose local representative was available and attentive.

"If the module broke down during a tournament, I know he'd be willing to jump in his car and help install a new one," Chitwood said.

Look! Up in the Sky!

Let's start at the top, where multistory scoreboards are becoming the norm. Fans of professional sports franchises are heavily invested in their teams and pay a steep price for tickets. And though it's seldom spoken, the reasoning goes that if the home team loses, a scoreboard that doubles as an entertainment center will make the spectators' experience still seem worthwhile.

The new scoreboard at the Ford Center basketball arena (photo on previous page), home of the Oklahoma City Thunders, is just such an entertainment center. Indeed, its stated underlying goal is to "upgrade the fan's in-game experience," according to the NBA's Web site.

Quoted on the Thunder's Web site, Brian Byrnes, senior vice president of Ticket Sales and Service, said: "This is so much more than a scoreboard. It's a real video presentation, which I think just really enhances the whole experience of being at the game."

Billed as the NBA's "biggest and best," the $3.9 million scoreboard features a dozen video panels and an LED ring. But though high schools wouldn't even have room for such a scoreboard, let alone the funds, a "video presentation" of some sort is becoming an expected game-time enhancement.

The Thunder's new scoreboard is a multi-tasker, allowing for a live game feed, clock, scores, statistics and sponsor messaging to be broadcast simultaneously.

A "pop-up element" previews what will happen during the next timeout, whether it's a sponsored promotion, an appearance by Rumble the mascot or a performance by the Thunder Girls.

Part of the thinking behind multi-tasking scoreboards is that audiences are accustomed to assimilating input from multiple sources. Music and video are presumed to generate excitement and pump up fans, creating more noise in support of the players. Generally, the scoreboards pay for themselves, at least in part, by including advertisements, although in-your-face ads tend to annoy some fans.

And not all fans appreciate that much stimuli. When the University of Notre Dame replaced its outdated, incandescent football scoreboard in the fall with a modestly upgraded LED board of roughly the same size, but with full color, some outspoken students published a letter in the college newspaper after the scoreboards' September debut, complaining that the graphics displayed during game time were "nothing short of atrocious."

"The old display was simple, and while it wasn't flashy it gave fans all the information they needed. Graphics were simple and certainly did not compare to other over-the-top stadium scoreboards, which was just fine," wrote Stephen Siena and Alexander Buell. "The simple scoreboard ensured that fans focused on the game and evoked a more traditional feel inside the stadium. We want the scoreboard to tell us what we want to know, such as other game scores and game stats. The scoreboard should not display silly graphics that serve no purpose…

"…The 'Get loud' and clapping animations were superfluous, and frankly, insulting. Notre Dame fans are intelligent enough to follow a game and know when to clap and cheer."

Although the students can no longer see the old scoreboard in action, they can visit it anytime: A nearby sports bar bought it at auction.

Scoreboard Selection Criteria

APPEARANCE: Scoreboards are turned off most of the time, so they should look attractive when they're not lit up.

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. LED digits should perhaps have protective coverings to protect against stray balls.

MAINTENANCE: Although the initial purchase price of a scoreboard may seem low, the cost of maintenance, service and upkeep over its 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. Built-in speakers also must be weather-resistant.

BRIGHTNESS: Consider how direct sunlight for an outdoor scoreboard or ambient lighting for an indoor board might affect the crispness of LED digits and/or video presentations.

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

CONTROL OPTIONS: Easy-to-use, handheld remote controls are a good option for little leagues and parks and recreation programs.

WARRANTY: Find out what type of warranty is offered and whether the manufacturer's service department will continue to offer consultation after the warranty period expires. Lamps, cables and switches may not be covered by the warranty.

High Cost of Cutting Corners

Some installers have cut corners during installation. Whether due to inexperience or a misguided attempt to cut costs, this has sometimes led to structural failures, Hatton said. Reputable, experienced manufacturers make scoreboard systems that meet strict standards for high winds and other harsh conditions, but when manufacturers' foundation requirements aren't met, scoreboards have been known to topple even when wind conditions aren't particularly high, Hatton explained.

The foundation does, in fact, contribute a lot to the cost of a scoreboard, as does the advice and expertise of a structural engineer. But do not reduce the recommended number of poles or footings as a cost-saving measure, because scoreboards are big, flat and top-heavy and therefore vulnerable to gusts of wind.

Another safety concern arises when sheet-metal ad panels aren't bolted on properly, Hatton said.

Still, as long as safety isn't compromised, the consensus says to buy the best scoreboard that still fits in the budget. Among cash-strapped sports facilities, "I think one of the common mistakes is to try to spend as little money as possible, but that's just asking for trouble," said Scott Chitwood, co-founder of Carolina Courts in Indian Trail, N.C., which has five regulation-sized basketball courts that double as 10 volleyball courts, which he recently outfitted with five scoreboards. "If you're in a recreation league and you pull out your scoreboard for 10 weeks out of the year, then you can probably get away with a low-priced model, but if you're using it year-round, you're absolutely crazy to try to cut corners. I knew our scoreboards would get such a workout that I needed something top-of-line."

Another common mistake "sounds like the opposite of what I just said," Chitwood said, "and that's spending too much on options you won't use. Don't get talked into buying all the bells and whistles unless you're absolutely sure you'll use them."

Keep in mind, too, that there are ways to "jazz up a scoreboard without going all new," Hatton said, such as adding a message center on top for statistics and simple ads, or installing stat panels to sides. You can also add or upgrade sound.

"There are new sound systems you can just mount on top of a scoreboard," Hatton said. Sound enhances spectacle, so one widespread consumer trend across the industry is increased demand for scoreboards with high-quality, built-in audio systems, she added.

Risk Management

Outdoor scoreboards can easily weigh a thousand pounds and are mounted on posts often dozens of feet into the air. When these structures fail, fans, workers and passersby are at risk. And when they fail they can cause a significant headache for facility administrators. Often cost of replacement and insurance issues are the least of their worries.

These structural failures are happening with no respect to geographic location or scoreboard manufacturer. According to Russ Neyens, a civil engineer employed by a scoreboard manufacturer with a professional engineering license in South Dakota, "There are many outdoor display systems being installed that do not meet national or local building codes and in some cases these displays result in failure."

Does this mean that becoming a structural design expert is the next duty being added to the already overstuffed plate of a facility manager? On the contrary, scoreboard installation safety is a straightforward concern that is best cured by knowledge. There are several steps athletic directors and facility representatives can take to greatly reduce the risk of structural failure:

1. Select a qualified and experienced engineering firm.

Situation: Each year thousands of schools install new scoreboards, and in many of those cases facility representatives find themselves working with engineering contacts that lack expertise in outdoor structure design. Many of these engineering firms are familiar with building design, but designing outdoor display systems for wind loads is a different application that requires different expertise.

Solution: Athletic directors and facility representatives should involve qualified engineering representatives to review the structural design. Engineering firms that are qualified to review the designs will stamp engineering drawings with the Professional Engineering certification for the state in which they are licensed to work. Don't install any display unless the drawings are stamped with the certification of a Professional Engineer.

2. Choose an experienced installation contractor.

Situation: Many companies that become involved with scoreboard installations do not have engineers on staff to ensure the use of properly sized beams and footings. Many of these companies are not experienced in the installation of outdoor displays.

Solution: Select properly insured companies that have a proven track record of success installing outdoor display systems. Outdoor display structures are a critical aspect of good facility management; don't let an unqualified installation company put your facility, or its reputation, at risk.

3. Research critical site conditions.

Situation: Landscape and building changes can significantly affect a scoreboard's wind exposure. Footings can easily fail when they are designed to incorrect soil conditions. Anchor bolts can corrode or fail when improperly installed.

Solution: Ask your qualified engineering firm to perform soil samples. This information is key in determining the best footing design.

4. Select product from companies that care about safety.

Situation: Scoreboard cabinets need to be designed to handle the wind load stated by the local and national building codes. The typical way that scoreboards are tested is by loading weight across the face of the cabinet to determine points of failure.

Solution: Select display companies that have engineered their products to meet the standards set by national and local building codes.

Responsibility is best defined as being response able. Now that you are informed on the best practices for responsible display installation from the facility management perspective, take appropriate action. Contact an experienced engineering firm for your next project and accept nothing less than an engineering drawing stamped by a licensed professional engineer.

Source: Angela Hatton, Daktronics (

Easy Does It

Even as advanced technology and competitiveness are driving sales of pricey, high-definition scoreboard systems, consumer demand is high for simple yet dependable scoreboards that provide for flexibility and are easy to transport.

One widespread practice is the use handheld radio controls to keep score. This is especially prevalent in the parks and recreation sector, said Bill Seals, marketing specialist for a Des Moines, Iowa-based scoreboard manufacturer.

Concerns from a few years back that battery-powered radio controls might lose power during games have all but evaporated.

"Sports complexes want something simple an umpire or coach can use" during game time, he said, adding that handheld remote controls are ideal for facilities where portability and user-friendliness are key, and operation from the sideline or on the court or field is essential.

The devices are compact, portable, and about the size of a TV remote. They can clip onto the user's belt and be used to operate multiple scoreboards all at once.

Over the past several years, the need for freedom, flexibility and affordability in the parks and recreation sector has boosted sales of lightweight, portable scoreboards, as well, which are powered by rechargeable batteries or conventional power.

Scoreboard manufacturers also are fielding more and more inquiries about "green" features. LED scoreboards are all "green" to the extent that the bulbs last so long. But there also are solar-powered models on the market, as well as scoreboards that are designed to be green down to every last detail, including paint so environmentally friendly that "the joke is you can drink it," Hatton said. While that's not advisable, it's good to know that if the paint leaches into the soil, the ground water won't take on harmful chemicals.

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