How Things Work: Scoreboards

No varsity game is ever complete without the basics: a lit-up stadium, exuberant cheerleaders, a commentator trying very hard to be heard over the noise, and of course, the players. However, it’s hard to forget the part of the field that attracts a million gazes every few seconds. Perhaps the most important part of the game should be that which decides the final outcome of all the adrenaline rush: the scoreboard.

Scoreboards have a long history. As sports games became more complicated with more rules, the scoreboards had to be upgraded to accommodate all of the rules.
The most primitive scoreboards have people sitting behind them holding cards with numbers on them. These are called mechanical flip scoreboards and have been in use ever since sports addicts were born. A behind-the-desk official flips the scorecards as teams compete and scores change.

Technology has come a long way since those old days of flipping, and mechanical scoreboards are a thing of the past.

After mechanical flip scoreboards came electro-mechanical ones. Digits in these scoreboards were not written on placards of plastic, but were rather made up of light bulbs.
The internal wiring of these scoreboards consisted of relay switches or stepping switches. These switches basically consist of coils through which electricity flows, generating a magnetic field.
The magnetic field attracts a lever, which makes contact with different points in the circuit and produces different outputs.

Corresponding to the desired digits, different electrical signals are sent to the switches generating different responses.

The main concern with these electro-mechanical scoreboards is that the light bulbs used in the display do not last for very long. To make up for this drawback, a new generation of scoreboards was born in which the light bulbs were replaced with Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

LED lights may seem like miniature light bulbs, but they differ greatly from normal incandescent light bulbs in that they do not have filaments.

Normal light bulbs have a short life mainly because they burn out the minute their filaments are damaged. Without any filaments, LED lights have a rather low chance of burning out.
Instead of filaments, LED lights consist of semiconductors. In LED devices, electrons in the semiconductors move through specific paths, resulting in the emission of light.
LED lights are now fairly common in most stadiums, but surprisingly, scoreboards consisting of old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs are still in use.

It is sometimes strange to see the use of technology that is considered somewhat obsolete, but the truth is that old-fashioned light bulbs are just easier to see. In scoreboards that use these lights, a change in the angle of sunlight or the tilt of an onlooker’s head will not alter the way the digits appear from far away.

In contrast, because of their small size, LED displays are less bright and therefore harder to see clearly in sunlight. The LED lights look best when viewed in dim lighting and are therefore mostly used by indoor stadiums.

Even after understanding how the digits appear on the screens, how the boards know what to display can still seem mysterious.
Electromechanical scoreboards are connected to the control room through extensive wiring running under the stadium. Designers developed a smart way of doing this in which the wires that supplied power to the boards were the same wires that fed input into the boards.

However, technology has to eventually be upgraded as older methods prove less efficient, and designers eventually scrapped the wires althogether. In the latest versions of scoreboards, infrared signals are sent out to the scoreboards and are picked up by infrared receptors within the boards.

The display is also controlled by radio waves, which are transmitted to the board. A new technology called spread spectrum technology allows the signal to broadcast over a large radio spectrum. This allows the scores to be changed more quickly and efficiently.

Great effort has been put into designing the scoreboards and making them work efficiently. As the sole element that holds all the information that decides the fate of a game, scoreboards sure do count for a lot.