Seeking the Total Package
Trends in Sports Lighting, Scoreboards and Sound Systems
By Chris Gelbach
As new facilities debut and old systems get retrofitted, sports facilities are taking advantage of new technologies that allow them to reduce their operating costs, increase the theming and scenic elements of the experience, and enable more remote control and diagnostics. The implementation of these advances in sports lighting, scoreboards and sound systems are creating a more refined fan experience in environments that range from municipal and K-12 fields to the newest pro facilities.
LED Continues Its Advance
At all levels of sports lighting, LED technology is continuing to see increased adoption. Jeff Rogers, vice president of an Iowa-based company with more than 40 years of experience in sports lighting, still sees some new high school facilities opt for metal halide systems. His company offers both technologies, with equivalent warranties and bulb replacement services for both technologies.
As a result, some of his clients still opt for metal halide, even though the systems do not offer some of the performance benefits of LED. These LED benefits can include less light pollution through better control of light spill, better ball tracking, less frequent light replacement, better control of light intensity and theming, and lower energy consumption. But Rogers still saw about 40 percent of high school and parks and recreation clients opt for metal halide in 2017 because of its lower initial cost.
"We've seen LED as a technology that allows us to advance sports field lighting," Rogers said. "But there's a cost to that. Right now it's probably a 20 to 25 percent delta between metal halide and LED, and we're quickly seeing that go away. But that's been what's kept it from being 100 percent LED in 2017."
According to Rogers, communities with stricter standards for glare and spill in the neighborhood have adopted LED at an even faster pace. Because it is a small light source with greater ability to control glare light, Rogers is also seeing LED become the technology of choice for multifield venues. "If you're going to have a 10-field sports complex and you're playing on field two, you want to make sure that the light coming from field four isn't causing a problem with the field of play," Rogers said. Because it offers dimming options, LED also permits dimming of the lights on certain fields that are not in use for further control of spill light.
Facilities thinking about doing their own light replacements instead of relying on the initial vendor to perform that follow-up service see even greater benefits associated with LED. Eric Boorom, owner of a Michigan-based sports lighting company, noted that his company once sold metal halide bulbs with an expected life of 2,000 to 5,000 hours per bulb. "With the LED chips, we're measuring those in tens if not hundreds of thousands of hours," Boorom said. "The maintenance cost savings to the municipality can be substantial over and above the lower utility bill you'll get with LED."
The implementation of advances in sports lighting, scoreboards and sound systems are creating a more refined fan experience in environments that range from municipal and K-12 fields to the newest pro facilities.
Boorom recommends that recreation managers look to work with established vendors that have a long history in sports lighting, offer innovative or proprietary technologies, can offer in-house service and installation, and provide wireless controls, among other considerations.
Rogers also recommends that buyers be sure to choose an all-inclusive warranty. "People should be careful to make sure that the warranty they're buying is encompassing of not only the core component, the LED, but is of all the controls and all the pieces that are part of the system," he said. It is also beneficial if the company has local support representatives available as well as the technology to perform remote monitoring, diagnostics and support of the system.
Boorom is now even seeing LED make inroads into existing facilities doing retrofits, with a growing part of his company's business going to support those opportunities. "It's so quick and easy to do that if you're going to spend the time and money to change bulbs that are burned out because of usage, you might as well just retrofit it to LED," Boorom said. "I think there is a little bit of a void there in the understanding in the marketplace on how easy it is to retrofit to an LED sports lighting system."
Other new features related to LED systems that manufacturers are seeing more clients adopt include options to include customized branding of the fixture endcaps to match school or team colors. The lighting vendors are also helping clients use the versatility of the LED lights to create different scenic looks.
Boorom noted the example of Turner Field, which was once the home of the Atlanta Braves but was recently transformed into the new Georgia State University football stadium. His company worked with the school on several scenes that debuted during the school's home opener. "There are various looks at different points of the pregame, halftime and postgame," Boorom said. "It underscores the ability to introduce the technology into an existing venue, it looks sharp, and it is 100 percent branded specifically for Georgia State."
Scoreboards Mix Old and New
When it comes to scoreboards, manufacturers of the displays are also seeing a shift to LED technology as more facilities to opt to install video screens in addition to or in place of traditional fixed-digit scoreboards. According to Nick Wilson, vice president of sales and marketing for a scoreboard manufacturer based in Whitesboro, N.Y., LED displays still require a significant cost premium over a traditional scoreboard.
"When the prices are dropping is when the high schools are starting to pick these up," Wilson said. "They want to be like their local colleges and universities and pro teams. Right now, the price is at a feasible spot, but it has to be in a capital project. Because they can't just front the cost of it alone just through the athletic department."
Over time, Wilson expects scoreboards to go all-digital. "Within 15 years, you're not going to see just a box with digits in it," he said. "It's going to be a software-controlled video screen that you just display a scoreboard on."
At the Division I and pro levels, Wilson is seeing clients opt for the biggest and best screens possible with the smallest pixel pitch to achieve the highest-quality images. "We're seeing a lot of the colleges trying to mimic professional teams," Wilson said. "They're trying to get these screens in there because they can easily offset the dollars by ad revenue from people watching in-game ads."
In addition to multiple video screens and often no actual scoreboard, these facilities will also often opt for banner boards all around the stadium that create a more arena-like feel. "They're there to make money off these screens," Wilson said. "If there's a place to put a video screen, they're going to do it."
But the switch to LED alone can also make the board more difficult to operate. As a result, many high schools and recreation departments are instead opting for displays that include both an LED screen and a traditional scoreboard.
"On the recreational side, you'll see more of a hybrid because you've got a variety of events coming into the facility," said Alex Gomez, chief revenue officer for a New York City-based provider of scoreboards and lighting solutions. "If you go 100 percent LED, you're limiting the user base that can actually control and operate it. So you turn on your LED for your marquee higher-profile events and then you still use your fixed-digit for your amateur and youth events."
This approach is helpful because traditional scoreboard consoles are so intuitive and easy to use that any mom or dad can pick one up and use it on the weekend for Pop Warner games. Whereas the LED display requires more know-how. It also consumes significantly more energy, making its use most appropriate for special events. "You can literally run the fixed-digit scoreboard on virtually nothing," Wilson said. "It's like 99 percent savings if you're not using the video screen."
Wilson is additionally seeing more clients opt to use a solar kit for scoreboards on fields that don't already have power running to them. "You can call an electrician and they'll charge you $5,000 to bring out power, or you can buy a solar kit to power the scoreboard and have free clean energy," Wilson said.
As with lighting systems, choosing a vendor who can provide post-sale support is critical, particularly when the choice to implement a scoreboard that includes an LED display is made. "The fixed-digit scoreboards literally last for decades," Gomez said. "Once you get into LED, the game changes. It's like buying a computer. The computer that you bought in 1990 is not relevant today. And the parts that are provided are not made by any individual manufacturer, so certain parts become unavailable over time."
For these reasons, Gomez recommends choosing a vendor with a long history in the space that can provide support over the long haul, and that can provide local support when needed. "A number of entities don't have the local service agents that can drive over for a Friday night or Saturday or Sunday to instantly resolve any issues you may have over the years you have these investments on the field," Gomez said. "The post-sale is more important than the pre-sale."
As with lighting, scoreboard manufacturers are offering a growing range of customization options to emphasize school colors, logos and branding, from side and top panels to side banners flanking the scoreboard system that can be swapped out for different events.
Sound Options Abound
When it comes to sound systems, recreation facilities are also opting for higher-end products in many cases. In some instances, they may even have their eyes on systems that are higher-performing than the application demands.
"In the case of arenas for hockey or basketball, a lot of customers are judging the system knowingly or unknowingly more based on a concert-style system," said Olivier Roure, vice president of large venue sales for North America for a global provider of pro audio, video, lighting and control systems. "Instead of having a more utilitarian position, they're trying to get sonically to sound like a concert."
As a result, Roure is seeing more touring-style products making their way into the central scoreboard array in these arenas, because the vision the venue owner has for the facility's sound is more concert-like. "In our opinion, this may be an overreaction, as the concert is basically a live thing, while they are playing prerecorded music, which is automatically lower quality," Roure said.
As a result, it's important to consider how the system will be used, to avoid opting for a system that's more expensive than necessary. "If you're putting a touring system into a facility, and in the end all you're going to do is not even play a CD, but music from an MP3 player, sometimes it just doesn't matter," Roure said.
At the same time, however, as new facilities place an increasing priority on suites, Roure often sees facilities opt for a basic approach when outfitting those spaces with sound systems. "Usually the first try ends up being pretty utilitarian—making sure that there is sound, there is video, there is control in the suite," Roure said. After a few years of negative feedback from high-paying suite customers, these venues often go back and enhance the suite sound systems. "The facility comes back and will revisit the luxury suites and customize them some more than they have in a previous pass at a project," Roure said.
While the energy-saving potential of LED lights is well-understood, Roure noted that green designs have also produced significant energy savings with new amplification systems. "We have definitely done studies for facilities where maybe their amplification was only six years old and making the case that changing all of it now would make sense because the green initiative would make the new system pay for itself within 12 months," Roure said. These systems can offer savings both in requiring less electricity and by producing less heat, which in turn lessens the amount of air conditioning that needs to be used to cool the system down in the rack room.
More budget-strapped facilities are also finding that they can get big sound at a reasonable price by opting for a portable sound system, a choice that also provides greater flexibility. "We're seeing a lot of schools wanting to replace the old horn-driven speakers that are installed in stadiums and instead of doing something installed they want to stretch their budget," said Emily Golding, vice president of marketing for a provider of portable sound solutions based in Carlsbad, Calif. "So they want to get a system that's versatile that can maybe solve more than one problem."
Portable systems are also by default the only option for fields that lack poles, bleachers or other infrastructure from which to hang an installed system. "If you just have an open field, a portable system is going to be the only option anyway," Roure said. "At that point, it becomes more like rental production — more like an event in the street for a week."
Golding is seeing parks and recreation departments opt for portable systems when they want a solution that can go beyond just an athletic field to also be used in the various park spaces where people may gather for different events. Since they're battery powered, they also eliminate the need for outlets and extension cords.
"Recently, we also switched to lithium ion batteries which are much lighter and last a lot longer," Golding said. "While you used to get only maybe two years out of a battery, now it's four to six years. And they're lighter. The batteries used to weigh 15 pounds and now it's about 5 pounds, so they really reduce the weight of the product."
Golding recommends that recreation and athletic departments budget $2,500 to $4,000 for a portable PA system, whereas she estimates that installed systems start at $10,000 or more. She also recommends looking for a system that is easy to operate and that excels at both playing music and voice amplification. "A lot of sound systems have trouble doing both," Golding said. "They're usually optimized for music and not for voice amplification, so it's important to have both of those needs covered."
Bringing It All Together
While it would be ideal to be able to operate the lights, scoreboard and sound system together easily from one device, the technology's not quite there yet. "The lighting, scoreboard and sound systems at this point are still fairly independent of each other," Roure said. "The more technology you have to pack up into a single device, the more complicated the device has to be."
Boorom expects the integration of controls into one standard to happen in the future, with the solution being driven, as it has in other industries, by a consolidation of businesses. "I think that's probably the next wave in the world of sports facilities and management of products—when there start to be some mergers that bring these technologies together for a turnkey package," Boorom said.
But while this vision doesn't yet happen seamlessly, that's not always obvious to fans who are able to enjoy the immersive experience that a combination of the latest sound, lighting and scoreboard technologies can provide. "If you have just a generic field with turf on it, today most people just feel like that's what you should have," Wilson said. "But when you have a high-fidelity sound system, lighting system and a scoreboard system that all interact with each other, then you've got a stadium."
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