Structures, lighting and scoreboards shape the success of indoor sports facilities

For athletes, the most important part of a sports facility is the playing surface. Sports field managers know that there are additional factors that determine the quality of the playing experience. At indoor sports facilities these factors include the type of structure that covers the field, as well as the lighting that illuminates the playing surface and, finally, the scoreboard, which conveys critical game information to participants and coaches.

While energy costs are a concern for sports facility managers, it’s important to provide safe, playable conditions for the athletes. New lighting technologies are helping to provide more light with fewer watts.

Cost-effective covering

A growing number of indoor sports facilities are covered by “bubbles.” There are several reasons for their popularity says Matt Polizzi, director of marketing with Arizon Structures (, which specializes in these air-and-fabric structures. “Certainly it’s by far the most cost-effective option,” Polizzi says. Another advantage that air-supported structures have over brick and mortar structures is a quicker construction time line; some have been put up in just a few weeks.

Air structures also provide flexibility that solid structures can’t match: the ability to use the cover only when desired, or when dictated by weather conditions. Polizzi cites as one example an Arizon Structures installation at the University of Colorado. “They put it up every winter and take it down every summer,” he explains. “This type of seasonal application is very popular, particularly for tennis and aquatic facilities. Because people like to play outside in the summer, and this allows them to do that.”

Air structures can be permanent installations, and there is no geographic limit to where they can be installed, notes Polizzi. Arizon Structures are rated for snow loads up to 50 pounds per square foot. There is also flexibility in the uses of air structures. “We build a lot of multisport structures, as well as some that are intended specifically for football or tennis, for example,” says Polizzi. “They are clear-span structures, so they really can be used for a wide range of applications.”

Like any type of building, there is maintenance required with air structures. “Mostly it involves just checking temperatures and pressure gauges and just making sure that the readings are staying consistent,” says Polizzi. “Much of it is really routine, commonsense stuff, like check the building for fallen tree limbs, for example. There are also things like testing backup generator systems and making sure the air-handling system is working well.” Arizon Structures provides customers with an annual calendar that explains what maintenance is needed daily, weekly, monthly, etc.

A variety of lighting systems can be used inside air structures. “Because they’re mostly used for sports, the majority of the installations feature indirect lighting, where the light is actually shining at the structure itself,” explains Polizzi. Especially given the white color of the fabric, air structures lend themselves very well to this type of lighting, which creates an even blanket light coverage without shadows.

He says that translucent fabric can also be specified as an option when ordering air structures. This is the same material with the same strength as found throughout the rest of the structure, but when placed near the top allows daylight to come through much the way a skylight would. “So a lot of air structure owners don’t have to operate electric lighting during the day, which saves them a lot of money,” Polizzi notes.

Yeadon Domes (, another manufacturer of air-supported structures, offers a “dome wind sensor” that automatically adjusts the pressure inside the structure in response to the wind speed and other weather conditions. This device can also detect snow levels and automatically contact sports facility managers by phone, computer or pager to alert them to changing conditions.

For both warm and cold-climate installations, Yeadon Domes offers its R-Plus insulated domes to increase the efficiency of heating and air conditioning systems. These domes utilize a fiberglass insulation with an R-12 insulation rating, which the company says is superior to “bubble wrap-type” insulations. While the insulated domes are permanent installations, Yeadon Domes also offers domes that can be easily put up and taken down when desired thanks to the company’s airtight channel anchoring system. This gives sports facility managers control over when to provide an indoor versus outdoor playing experience.

“Bubbles,” or air structures, now cover many sports facilities, in part because they can be put up faster and at a lower cost than solid structures. The white color of the fabric works perfectly for indirect lighting. “If someone lights a building indirectly, it’s spectacular. You get even light levels throughout the facility because the light is reflecting off the ceiling and it evens out as it goes down toward the floor,” says Gary Yurich, owner of Best Lights.

Lighting it up

Energy costs are a top concern among sports facility managers, says Gary Yurich, owner of Best Lights (, which specializes in sports lighting. “Many people are converting to fluorescent lighting for the energy savings, but they won’t have even close to the light levels that they originally had with metal halide lights,” Yurich notes. Fluorescent lighting is also the least costly type of lighting to install in sports facilities, adding to its appeal. However, the lower light levels produced can impact playability and safety. “Everyone is energy conscious right now, but in the sports arena the athletes might end up with less light,” he cautions.

Similarly, LED lighting is all the rage in many commercial applications, but the technology hasn’t developed enough to produce the amount of light required. “LEDs aren’t available in the high wattage you need for sports facilities,” Yurich explains. “And the [LED] lamp source isn’t there as far as light output. The biggest LED that we know of today is 300 watts and puts out 30,000 lumens. If you’re going to light a sports complex, you need to be at 80,000 to 100,000 lumens per fixture.”

Fortunately, says Yurich, “there are a lot of things happening in the lighting industry, and a lot of new technologies coming out.” Some of these are allowing fixtures to produce more light while using less energy. Best Lights, for example, recently installed new lighting at Michigan State University’s Jenison Field House with new technology. “We replaced all of their 1,000-watt lights, which actually burn 1,080 watts, with 684 watts, so that’s about a 37 percent energy savings.”

The wattage of the bulbs is only one factor to consider, says Yurich. The design of the fixture also impacts the amount of light produced. For example, Michigan State first tested its existing metal halide fixtures with new lights (bulbs) from Best Lights and found that 88 foot-candles of light was being produced. In the end, the school upgraded to Best Light’s new T9 fixtures – a ceramic metal halide lamp – and was able to generate 105 foot-candles of light, even while using 400 watts less energy per fixture. Yurich advises sports facility owners considering new lighting to search out a company that is willing to provide fixtures and lights for a demonstration or test. “You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, so be sure you can test out the lighting,” he explains.

Beyond the type and technology of the fixture and bulb, the approach to lighting can greatly control the overall look and functionality. Yurich argues that indirect lighting is the best approach for sports facilities. “If someone lights a building indirectly, it’s spectacular. You get even light levels throughout the facility because the light is reflecting off the ceiling and it evens out as it goes down toward the floor,” he explains. “With direct lighting, you have the light coming down out of the fixture, and between fixtures you lose light.” Indirect lighting is also superior from a playability perspective, he contends. “When the athlete is looking up – and they do all the time – they don’t have light shining in their eyes,” Yurich says.

Indirect lighting requires a white ceiling, as other colors will “eat,” or absorb, the light rather than spreading it, he adds. Also, indirect lighting typically costs about 30 percent more than direct lighting, estimates Yurich. There are also maintenance costs to consider, he adds. It takes more fluorescent fixtures to light a sports facility than it does metal halide lights, which means more cleaning and more bulbs to check and change out. “When it comes to lighting, people will often look only at price, but you really need to look at the whole picture,” he states.

Keeping score

Obviously, placing a scoreboard in an indoor sports facility protects it from the weather that an outdoor scoreboard is exposed to on a daily basis. This allows manufacturers to use different materials, processes and finishes when constructing scoreboards for indoor use. “Indoor scoreboards have a totally different design,” says Danny Gonzales, national sales manager for Spectrum Scoreboards ( Some of these differences are hidden from view, he notes. From the design of the circuitry to the size of the wiring used to the amperage draw, indoor and outdoor scoreboards are constructed for their specific environments.

Another factor that differentiates indoor and outdoor scoreboards is the “brilliance” of the LED lighting. “When you design the electronics to drive those LEDs, you have an opportunity to run those LEDs at 10 percent or 100 percent. In an indoor environment, where you don’t have to compete with sunlight, there’s no reason to run those LEDs at 100 percent,” Gonzales explains. Spectrum runs its indoor LEDs at about 40 percent, he says, noting that this extends the life expectancy of those LEDs. “LEDs are rated for 11,000 hours at 100 percent, but if you’re running at 40 percent you’ll get much more life from them,” Gonzales says. “At Spectrum, we love to see customers get 20 years out of an indoor scoreboard. This helps achieve that and still have a scoreboard that looks brand new.”

Particularly for indoor sports facilities, portable scoreboards are a popular choice, says Mark Steinkamp, marketing director with Daktronics. “They work well for situations where there are a lot of different types of sporting events, or where the scoreboard needs to be moved to multiple parts of a venue or even to multiple venues,” he explains.

Many indoor sports facilities are “multiuse” and need to accommodate various different sports. That means selecting a scoreboard with the flexibility to score different sports. Spectrum Scoreboards is one example of a company that can customize a scoreboard for the specific sports involved. “It’s just a matter of knowing what features each sport needs,” says Gonzales. Oftentimes, he notes, scoreboards used in indoor sports facilities don’t need to convey quite as much detail as outdoor scoreboards. “For example, out in a football stadium you’re going to have a scoreboard that shows not only the score and the clock and the quarters, but also what down it is, yards to go for a first down and things like that,” he says. “In an indoor facility, they typically don’t want all of those functions.”

Particularly for indoor practice facilities, Gonzales recommends a simplified device called a “practice timer” in addition to a scoreboard. Spectrum’s EB series of timers for example, don’t show score or downs, etc., but rather can be set up to sound a horn at specified intervals to keep practices moving on time. “I can’t tell you how many coaches I’ve heard from about how this keeps them on track and makes sure they get everything done. They’re just going by a horn; when it sounds it’s time to move on to the next part of practice,” says Gonzales.

Mark Steinkamp, marketing director with Daktronics (, which manufactures a variety of scoreboards, says that indoor scoreboards are often smaller than their outdoor counterparts. The viewing distance is likely to be less indoors, so the digits and captions don’t need to be as large, he explains.

In some cases, the tight space of the building or the type of structure dictates the size of scoreboard that can be installed. “Weight would be a consideration,” says Steinkamp. “We would need to make sure that whatever we’re going to put in there would be OK from a building structure standpoint.” For air structures, he adds, it’s most common to mount the scoreboard on a self-supporting stand system.

Indoor sports facilities sometimes request scoreboards that can be displayed in different locations, depending on the type of sporting event, says Steinkamp. “We’ve seen a lot of interest in portable scoreboards,” he notes. “We have models that actually come on a cart that can be pulled around, as well as some that are only a little larger than a briefcase. They work well for situations where there are a lot of different types of sporting events, or where the scoreboard needs to be moved to multiple parts of a venue, or even to multiple venues.” Larger scoreboards are often controlled wirelessly, while the smaller, portable units often utilize wired control units, he adds.

Daktronics offers a line of MS (multisport) scoreboards that provide different “caption sets” for different sports. “The operator just enters a two-digit code and that sport comes up. It’s very user-friendly,” says Steinkamp. Just as the electronics can be customized, so too can the appearance of the scoreboard, he adds, noting that team or school colors and logos can be incorporated into the design for the ultimate custom look.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.