DURING A GAMEagainst the Denver Broncos a few years back, the Detroit Lions' Aveion Casonhappened to glance up at the giant scoreboard at Ford Field. What he saw wasnot a prancing cheerleader or a replay of a touchdown or an ad for gambling inGreek Town. No, there on the board, bigger than life, was his wife, Danielle,chomping down on a hot dog. After the game Cason gave her a kiss and said,"Do you want to get something to eat or not? Because it looked like you atepretty good today." Danielle blushed. She knew she had been busted.
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2009 issue
In today's sportingworld, the Big Board has become Big Brother. It exposes your awkward boogaloowhen the timeout music blares; demands that you pucker up when the KissCamsettles on your seat; reveals to the world your choice of tube-steakcondiments. But you love it. You want it. Unless you're Wrigley Field, one ofthe few well-known sports shrines still bereft of bells and whistles on itsboard.
The birth of giant,glittering video scoreboards can be traced to 1980, when Mitsubishi installedits Diamond Vision technology—a significant upgrade in high-resolution graphicsat that time—in the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium. By the turn of the 21stcentury, virtually every pro stadium, ballpark and arena (as well as manycollege and even some high school venues, including the fictional Dillon Highin TV's Friday Night Lights) had bowed to consumer demand and either souped upits scoreboard or installed a new one altogether.
Big boards are partof all sports—the giant ones in Kauffman Stadium and Time Warner Cable Arenaare better than their respective tenants, the Kansas City Royals and theCharlotte Bobcats—but in no sport are they as organic a part of the action asin football, whose stadium atmosphere is tailor-made for Riefenstahlianspectacle. There is no respite from the relentless scoreboard cacophony, anaudiovisual assault on the senses designed to rev up the home team and deflatethe opposition. The spectacle would've provoked a smile from the EmperorVespasian, under whose rule Rome's Colosseum was built in the first centuryA.D.
But today's giantscoreboards—collectively called jumbotrons, though that was a specific modelproduced by Sony, which has been out of the board biz since 2001—are far moreintrusive than anything in Vespasian's wildest imagination. Since thesevehicles of information overload are now on steroids (the largest in the U.S.is the 55-by-134-foot "Godzillatron," which towers over the south endzone at the University of Texas's Darrell K. Royal stadium) and every bit ashigh-def as your home TV, they have become a pixel-perfect part of the action,which is viewed in real time by the very participants for reasons strategic,recreational and, of course, narcissistic. "Yeah, if I make a sack, ofcourse I'm going to watch the replay and see me celebrating," saysBaltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "That's all part of thefun."
Many running backsand wide receivers say that once they get into the open field, they use thescoreboard like a giant GPS, glancing up to locate potential tacklers. Duringthe Nov. 24 Monday-night game, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Mooretook two or three peeks at the Superdome scoreboard as he turned a short passreception into a 70-yard touchdown play during a 51--29 win over the Green BayPackers. "I don't usually look," said Moore, "but [a fellow player]said to me two years ago, 'You got the jumbotron up there. If you ever need itwhen you break into the clear, use it.'"
Indeed, Saints widereceiver Devery Henderson rues not heeding that advice earlier in the season,when he was tripped up at the two-yard line after an 81-yard reception during a31--17 win over the San Francisco 49ers, also at the Superdome. "I didn'treally see the [tackler], so I should have looked up at the jumbotron,"Henderson said.
If glancing upseems risky, it beats turning your head to see what's behind, according to someplayers. "One time in Pee Wee football I looked back during a longrun," says Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, "and themomentum shift carried me out-of-bounds. That's why I don't look backanymore."
Minnesota Vikingswide receiver Bobby Wade says the scoreboard acts like a giant rootingteammate, helping you to "get into race mode." San Diego Chargers starLaDainian Tomlinson likens the scoreboard to a "rearview mirror on yourhelmet" and claims that a glance at the board now and then has helped himgain more than 1,000 yards in each of the past eight seasons. Says LT,"It's become part of the game."
And not just forthe glamour guys. In 2007, during a rare excursion toward the end zone—ithappened in the Cason hot-dog game—350-pound nosetackle Shaun Rogers, then withthe Lions, decided to use a stiff-arm on Selvin Young after he looked at thejumbotron and saw the Broncos running back gaining on him. The maneuver helpedRogers finish up a 66-yard touchdown run. "It just happened that way,"said Rogers. "We have a beautiful stadium and a beautiful jumbotron."And isn't it wonderful that someone has something nice to say about the Lionsfranchise?
Detroit linebackerParis Lenon can't benefit from real-time scoreboard viewing, but he checksreplays to study blocking schemes. "I want to see exactly where a playhit," says Lenon. "It might help me later."
An opposing schoolof thought holds that watching live action on the big board can be detrimentalbecause there is sometimes a slight delay on the scoreboard feed. Saintsquarterback Drew Brees says his former teammate Tomlinson almost got caughtfrom behind on one long run because he was watching the board. "Because ofthe delay," says Brees, "LT thought the [tackler] was a lot fartheraway than he really was."
Players also watchthe board during timeouts, which can be highly distracting. Ravens widereceiver Derrick Mason can recount, in absolutely Proustian detail, theanimated grocery-cart races shown on the giant board at Nashville's LP Fieldwhen he played for the Tennessee Titans. "I rooted for the different littlecharacters all the time," says Mason. "I wish we did something likethat here." He even remembers the protagonists: Molly Moo, Texas Pete, theCoca-Cola Polar Bear and Ernie the Keebler Elf.
The board casts thesame spell over players in other sports. The Phoenix Suns' video team oftenuses players in its scoreboard shows at U.S. Airways Center, and former Sunscoach Mike D'Antoni says he gave up talking during timeouts whenever one of hisplayers appeared on the board, say, hunting down a rival team's mascot. "Itwas more interesting than what I had to say anyway," says D'Antoni, nowcoach of the New York Knicks.
At the U.S. Opentennis tournament in September, second-seeded Jelena Jankovic couldn't helpusing the big board in Arthur Ashe Stadium as a megamirror, running her handthrough her hair and blinking mascara out of her eyes. "Oh, I keep watchingbecause you go to serve and you see your big face up there," Jankovic saidafter losing the Open final to Serena Williams, adding later, "I cannotfocus, because I keep looking at it. I think they should turn it off."That, Jelena, is just not going to happen.
Though there havebeen some near disasters with big boards—such as when the new $4.5 millionscoreboard crashed to the ice at Marine Midland Arena on Nov. 16, 1996, hoursbefore the NHL's Buffalo Sabres were to play the Boston Bruins (no one washurt)—the jumbotron arms race is proliferating. Bigger, sharper and clangier:That is the mantra. Fans and players alike let their franchise know when itstitanic timekeeper does not meet the latest standards. "Our jumbotronsucks," says Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards. "It has terriblegraphics and outdated technology. Someone needs to be in their ear and let themknow how to run the show."
AND MAKE nomistake: It is a show. By 10 a.m. on Nov. 23, three hours before the kickoff ofthe Miami Dolphins--New England Patriots game at Dolphin Stadium, JeffGriffith, the Dolphins' director of programming and production, has convenedhis pregame meeting in the scoreboard room, which resembles a TV studio. Aboutthree dozen employees listen and take notes. "All right, at the quarterbreak we've got the promotion of halftime," says Griffith. "It's goingto be a Dolphins logo. Then we have some music, and we're asked to hit a crowdshow again. Then something new this game—we're going to announce thecheerleader Pro Bowl winner. So we have the bump, the Bud Lite cheerleaderwelcome, then we'll go to a camera shot of all the girls, then the Pro Bowlvideo, then we hit a camera shot of her, then we go with them into theirroutine. We also have one 'Thank you for marrying me,' one 'Will you marry me?'and one 'Get well, Chad.'"
As kickoff nears,the atmosphere in the room can be described as controlled chaos. "Remember,we have flyover west to east," says Griffith, referring to the chopperswhose arrival is timed to coincide with The Star-Spangled Banner. But they'relate. As anthem singer John McWhinney stretches out "land of the free,"Griffith shouts, "That's it, John, you hold it, baby!" and the roomerupts in laughter.
Over the next threehours Griffith is a veritable Martin Scorsese, calling out camera shots, cueingmusic and asking for stats, all for the giant scoreboard made by Daktronics andfor the smaller "ribbon board," the ticker-tape-style display thatcircles the stadium. Seated near Griffith, director Jim Clark stares at a bankof TV screens that show the work of his nine remote cameramen (one of whomcontrols a camera mounted on each goalpost). Clark chooses the shots thatappear on the big board, subject always to Griffith's override.
The next mostimportant cog in the scoreboard wheel is Eddie Fernandez, who sits in the frontrow at the music console. "I'm sensing turnover, Eddie!" Griffith yellsduring a first-half Patriots possession. "Hand on Give It Away."
"I feel ittoo," says Fernandez. "My hand is on number 1." Hitting that buttonwould cue up the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit. (But there will be no Patriotsturnover.)
After apersonal-foul penalty against New England, graphics specialist Heather Pearsonyells, "Get ready for Naughty, Naughty, Eddie," referring to the JohnParr song. On it goes.
As they haveevolved, giant scoreboards have assumed one principal function: to provide ahome field advantage. Yes, they give the score, the time, stats, out-of-townresults and franchise-burnishing info such as how bountifully the players feedthe poor on Thanksgiving. "But priority Number 1," Griffith says,"is to help the home team, within the rules, win the game." That's truein any sport, but it's in football that the scoreboard has the largestpresence—more personnel, more noise, more home-team help. "I love this job,and I wish I could do it every day!" Fernandez shouts after cueing upMetallica and watching some 67,000 fans start to gyrate. He is the wizard, theman behind the curtain. Says New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara, "The 12thman is definitely the fans, and if there was a 13th-man award, it wouldprobably be the jumbotron."
League rules in allsports keep the wizards from unleashing anarchy. In Major League Baseball allmoving scoreboard graphics must stop once the pitcher settles in to face thebatter. NBA rules list 11 "traditional fan prompts" (such as"Charge," "Defense" and We Will Rock You) that are the onlyscoreboard noise allowed when the visiting team has the ball. In the NFL, oncethe play clock begins ticking, the boards must stop flashing or creating otherdistractions; when the huddle breaks, all graphics must cease—though live gameaction is permitted. If allowed, the scoreboard crew would show endless replaysof bad calls against the home team, but there are restrictions. "The homeclub is ... to use discretion in the showing of replays that could cause strongfan reaction," reads the NFL game operations manual. "If the game isstopped for a replay challenge or review, no replay may be shown on thein-house video board except the network feed. Once a decision is made on areview, no replays may be shown of the play that was under review."
During the NewEngland--Miami game, Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss gets away with apush-off on a 29-yard touchdown pass—the Dolphins are actually called for passinterference—and cries of protest fill the scoreboard room. "If you gotit," Griffith says, "show it." Up goes the CBS replay on the bigboard, followed by the predictable cries of outrage from the bleachers. But theDolphins follow the NFL mandate and don't show it again.
Of course,scoreboard taunts are part of the game. As New York Giants placekicker JayFeely prepared for a potential game-winning 36-yard field goal at LincolnFinancial Field in Philadelphia in 2005, the Eagles' scoreboard crew rustled upvideo of Feely missing three field goals two weeks earlier, which had cost theGiants a victory over the Seattle Seahawks. Feely says he sensed what washappening but didn't look up. He then made the kick to give the Giants a 26--23overtime victory.
Back at theDolphins-Patriots game, there is gloom in the scoreboard room. Miami hasself-destructed and is about to lose 48--28. "There is nothing we can do uphere if things are going bad down there," Griffith observes. A few minutesremain in the game, though, and Clark stares glumly at his bank of screens.
"What else doyou want to use, Jeff?" he asks Griffith. "Crowd? Out-of-townscores?"
"Just stay onthe game," says Griffith. Finally, inevitably, he adds, "If you havekids or cheerleaders, show them."
Kids andcheerleaders—the last refuge of the defeated.
THE SMALL,pyramid-shaped wrestling scoreboard rests on a landing inside the headquartersof Daktronics, a scoreboard company in Brookings, S.D., about 55 miles north ofSioux Falls. Anyone captivated by the history of scoreboards should make apilgrimage to this quotidian shrine and pay homage to the wrestling board'sMATCH PERIOD TIME ADVANTAGE MATCH-SCORE simplicity, for it is a pivotal linkbetween the unassuming boards of yesteryear and the riotous electronic Goliathsof today.
Daktronics wasfounded in 1968 by two South Dakota State electrical-engineering professors,Aelred Kurtenbach and Duane Sander, who'd been dismayed by the relentlessexodus of the state's brightest engineering students. Daktronics began bydesigning and manufacturing electronic voting systems for state legislatures."That kept the lights on around here for a couple years," says ReeceKurtenbach, Al's son, who now heads up the company's live-events division.Everything changed on the day the South Dakota State wrestling coach askedDaktronics to design a matside wrestling scoreboard. "It was a simpleengineering problem," says Al Kurtenbach, who's still chairman of thecompany's board of directors.
The wrestlingboards sold quickly, and orders came in for others. Daktronics moved on toboards for high school, college and minor league sports. More orders came in.Can you make a judo board? the engineers were asked. Sure can. Hey, soccerdoesn't have a distinctive board; can you design one? Swimming, diving andtaekwondo boards followed. Scoreboards for All Sports became the companyslogan, in time for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, for whichDaktronics made all the major boards—necessitating a quick study of exactlywhat the hell a biathlon is. Today, Daktronics has scoring and/or displayequipment in 27 of 31 NFL stadiums, 25 of 30 major league stadiums, 19 of 29NBA arenas, 21 of 30 NHL venues, six of Major League Soccer's sevenpurpose-built stadiums and hundreds of college venues.
Daktronics' storyis amazing: a simple idea turned into a manufacturing operation with 3,000-plusemployees and revenues of $500 million. It still sits just off I-29, on thetreeless, windswept South Dakota flatland. The operation has a mom-and-popfeel: The affable Kurtenbach, 75, still rambles around dispensing sage advice,and Midwestern hospitality prevails throughout the facility. There's afingers-crossed Daktronics tradition of calling the scoreboard business"recession-resistant." But while it's a major player, it competesagainst a global giant, Mitsubishi. The brain trust in South Dakota constantlylooks for ways to implement new technology in scoreboards, to enhance whateveryone in the board biz calls "the stadium experience."
Still Al Kurtenbachsays that thinking ahead of the curve is not nearly as important as talking topeople to see what they want. "I always tell our guys," he says,"'We didn't hire you to play God.'"
THERE IS, though,something celestial about the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington, Texas,which is scheduled to open before the 2009 season. Two gently curving steelarches, each 1,225 feet long, form a retractable roof and give areaching-for-the-sky feel to the edifice. That pleases Cowboys owner JerryJones, who, one supposes, would never rule out playing God. The stadium's costis estimated to be $1.1 billion. Naming rights are still available, in caseyou've got a little extra cash.
Such a bold,spit-in-the-eye-of-recession venue needs a bold score-telling, product-selling,emotion-shaping mechanism, of course, and so this glittering Texas palace willfeature the apotheosis of the scoreboard: the NFL's first center-hung board(Jones's idea), which spans 60 yards and looms 90 feet above the field—higher,the Cowboys hope, than any punt could ever reach. Made by Mitsubishi (theDaktronics boys were a little bummed that they didn't land this one), the boardis 160 feet wide, 72 feet high and will weigh about 600 tons when theelectronics are installed. The Statue of Liberty could fit into its frame. Itis as yet unnamed, but, as the world's largest scoreboard, its moniker needs toeclipse Godzillatron. Titanotron, perhaps? The board display includes10,584,064 LEDs and has a pixel pitch of 20 mm—we don't know exactly what thatlast thing means, but we're still impressed.
"What we wantedto do was really step out into the melding of technology and fanexperience," Jones said recently in his office at the Cowboys' Valley Ranchheadquarters. "[Former Cowboys president] Tex Schramm sat right on thatcouch and told me, 'Jerry, we can't have a studio game.' We have to have thepageantry, the crowds, the excitement. We are not selling football games—we areselling events."
To emphasize thatpoint, Jones contrasts the new Cowboys stadium with its Arlington neighbor,Rangers Ballpark, the classic old-timey stadium where a big league baseballteam plays beneath a modest scoreboard. "Now, I think that park isbeautiful, just beautiful," says Jones, "but it's not us. That's thepast. This is about the future! The spectacle! Our football scoreboard justwouldn't work in a baseball setting."
His comparisonalmost demands an appearance by the late George Carlin to update his oldfootball-versus-baseball routine. Baseball is a sport governed by a simplestatistics-driven scoreboard that in no way intrudes on the idyllic pastimebelow. Football demands a Brobdingnagian compendium of collected data offeredin an extravagant explosion of color, a mind-altering orgy of sight andsound!
The idea for thecenter-hung board came—as most great ideas do—at a Céline Dion concert in LasVegas. Jones was in the audience watching the Canadian chanteuse perform infront of a huge LED board. So there was Céline, and there was 40-foot-tallCéline. "Because of seeing her at an exaggerated size," says Jones,"I noticed everything about her expression, her movements, her emotion,things you couldn't see from watching just her. When it was over, it didn'tregister whether you had seen her or the projection behind her. Whichever itwas, it was fabulous."
This may have beena McLuhanesque moment in the march of time: Soon a live act will be irrelevantunless it is accompanied by real-time, supersized images of the live act. Atany rate, the concert convinced Jones that a gargantuan, high-res scoreboard isde rigueur for the 21st-century stadium. (Dare he call it Céline-a-Vision?)
It remains forsomeone else now—someone confident that pro sports remains arecession-resistant business and that fans are always looking for the NextReally, Really Big Thing in a scoreboard—to out-Jones Jones, take it to thenext level, whatever that might be. Virtual scoreboards that hover, ghostlike,above the stadium? Hologram boards whose displays disappear between downs andthen—poof!—magically re-form before the ball is snapped?
In its own way,though, the center-hung Dallas board—more visible to fans in the upper deckthan to players on the field—is retro. Scoreboards, after all, were originallytools for spectators. Now, at least in Big D, open-field runners will have towatch out for approaching tacklers the old-fashioned way.
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